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Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 28, 2019

Kyle McArthur
Photo by Joan Marcus

Superheroes are potentially living amongst us, and they may be individuals one would least expect. That colleague who is constantly late or blowing off meetings? He could be a superhero. The elusive neighbor who comes and goes at the oddest times? She could be one too. This is one of the conceits of Superhero, the new mixed-bag of a musical with book by John Logan and music and lyrics by Tom Kitt currently playing at Second Stage Off-Broadway.

In structure and plot, Superhero contains the rudiments of the comic book team-up genre in which two or more superheroes join forces and take on a particularly nasty villain. Spider-Man and the Hulk, Superman and Batman, Doctor Strange and the Fantastic Four are just a few of the numerous team-ups in the history of superhero comic books. Imagine, then, a musical team-up of Dear Evan Hansen and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark or It's a Bird. . . It's a Plane. . . It's Superman, and you'll have the gist of the show's premise. Unlike the comic book team-ups, Superhero lacks a formidable villain. Life, as depicted in this show, can be daunting enough and requires all of the power one can muster to confront its tragic exigencies.

Like Evan Hansen, Simon (Kyle McArthur), a brooding, troubled teen, lives with his emotionally overwhelmed single mother Charlotte (Kate Baldwin), and the two are coping with the loss of their father and husband. Simon finds solace in superhero comic books and in creating his own superhero fantasies. Charlotte, a literature professor, attempts to focus on her scholarly research, a book on the nineteenth century poet, John Clare. When Simon notices his frustrated, aloof neighbor Jim (Bryce Pinkham) flatten a fire hydrant with a single blow, he immediately wants to set up the stealth superhero with his incredulous but game mother.

Simon has a love interest of his own. He is smitten with Vee (the wonderful Salena Qureshi), who is a superhero in her own right. She is organizing an event focused on saving the planet, and when a male schoolyard bully attempts to intimidate her, she has the upper hand. In order to win the young woman's affection, Simon volunteers to take part in the showcase, and he starts to emerge from his own grief-induced shell. In the meantime, Charlotte and Jim are beginning to break through their own emotional walls.

There are moments that are quite moving (and I admit to getting a little teary in a few places), but there are also several tonal problems with Logan's book. First, the supernatural and fantasy elements do not always fit well with the psychological realism in the early scenes, and the pairing of the depressed Charlotte and standoffish Jim is too rapid even by musical theatre standards. And while the show encompasses familiar motifs from superhero comic books (such as the lonely superhero figure and her or his impossibility of leading a normal life), there are some confusing elements. What exactly is Jim's power, and what are the precise triggers that lead him into action? That is, why do some of the calls for help go through, and others do not? Finally, the show includes a grumpy, comic-book obsessed landlord (Tom Sesma), who seems like he could be the hero's mentor, but he does not serve a real function in the show.

Kate Baldwin and Bryce Pinkham
Photo by Joan Marcus

Kitt's songs are better than serviceable, and there are a few small gems, such as the ironic "I'll Save the Girl," the defiant "Hold On," and the sweetly charming "If I Only Had One Day," but the score does not rise to the level of Kitt's previous Second Stage hit, Next to Normal. The first act in particular presents a series of power ballads, and it is not until later in the show that the musical stops shouting its emotions and themes.

In any case, the songs are beautifully served by the fine cast. Having doffed the ribbons down her back last summer in Hello, Dolly!, Baldwin is positively radiant. She handles the comic and sorrowful moments masterfully, and she is in glorious voice. Pinkham with his sparkling tenor vocals brings a charming awkwardness to the part of Jim, and his moments of tenderness with Simon are quite moving. Newcomer McArthur surely has a bright future in front of him. He performs his songs with impressive authoritativeness, and he reveals several layers of sadness, vulnerability, and teen gawkiness. It is a striking professional debut.

Director Jason Moore (currently represented on Broadway with The Cher Show and Off-Broadway with the long-running Avenue Q) keeps the show moving at a good clip. He is ably assisted by Lorin Latarro, who is credited with the musical staging. In an early scene, the choreography and costume design (by Sarah Laux) cannily reproduces the multiple superhero image from comic books, and which was used to grand effect in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. That production filled the huge stage with Spider-Mans, and it works just as successfully with a handful of Simons in his red hoodie on the small Off-Broadway stage.

The design also playfully and graphically establishes the genre. Beowulf Boritt's scenic design, for example, includes several pop-up and pop-out comic book panes that extend into the audience. Jennifer Schriever's lighting captures the quickly shifting moods, and Brian Ronan's sound design, Chris Fisher's illusion design, and especially Tal Yarden's projections contribute to the essence of a living comic book.

While the musical is not invincible to periodic lapses in believability, there are enough moments that reveal the notion that superheroes come in many different forms. Who knows? The person sitting next to you in the theatre might just be a superhero.

Through March 31
Second Stage Theater, Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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