It's a Bird… It's a Plane… It's Superman
City Center Encores! hits all the right notes with this smile-inducing production of the 1966 musical.
Watch out, Spidey, there's another superhero in town, and this one doesn't need wires to soar.
Yep, the guy in the form-fitting tights with the big "S" on the front of his red cape has landed in our fair city for an all-too-brief stay in John Rando's utterly charming staging of the 1966 musical It's a Bird… It's a Plane… It's Superman at City Center Encores! And it's not just the Man of Steel, as ideally personified by the studly-yet-sensitive Edward Watts, who makes this production a high-flying delight. The entire top-notch cast and creative team have made a more-than-heroic effort to transform this piece of fluff into something memorable.
One can see why the show has never made it into the musical theater pantheon. The clever-if-slight script by David Newman and future Oscar winner Robert Benton has barely enough plot to fill a 22-minute episode of a TV series. After a little meandering, it focuses on the efforts of revenge-hungry scientist Dr. Abner Sedgwick (David Pittu) and egotistical newspaper gossip columnist Max Mencken (Will Swenson) to discover Superman's true identity. (As in every version of Superman, our superhero looks so much like Clark Kent that it really doesn't seem a difficult task!)
Moreover, the score by Broadway greats Charles Strouse and Lee Adams is consistently tuneful, but lacks the hit-after-hit structure of some of their stronger collaborations such as Bye Bye Birdie. (The only song that will sound familiar to most of the audience is "You've Got Possibilities," performed here with sass and brass by the gifted Alli Mauzey as Daily Planet secretary Sydney.)
Time may also be the show's friend since in some ways; it was probably too square for the swinging 1960s. Today, though, we can find the chaste romantic dreams of strong-willed reporter Lois Lane (played to perfection by Jenny Powers) to be quaint yet adorable. Sure, when Lois sings of becoming a suburban wife in "What I've Always Wanted" after a date with scientist Jim Morgan (Adam Monley), the sentiments seem oddly retro but also honestly sincere. We can accept that the seemingly brazen Sydney really wants to just settle down with Max, played with delicious oiliness by Swenson, especially since she's aware he's more in love with himself than he'll ever be with anyone else. Even Superman is looking for someone who will let him be his true self — as expressed in "The Strongest Man in the World" (beautifully sung by Watts) — provided she's fine with him flying off on a moment's notice to save the citizens of Metropolis from evil.
The production also plays up what we now love about the period, from John Lee Beatty's cartoonish sets (inspired by the Pop Art paintings of Roy Lichtenstein) to Paul Tazewell's mod mini-dresses. Joshua Bergasse's lively choreography incorporates the Frug, the Swim, and other now-beloved dances first seen a half century ago. Admittedly, the acrobatic moves performed by the four extraordinary men (Craig Henningsen, Suo Liu, Jason Ng, and Scott Weber) who play "The Flying Lings" seem to come from a much later decade, but they're so breathtaking that it doesn't matter.
Whether it's the 1960s or the 2010s, however, there's something timeless about the villain you love to hate and hate to love. That's exactly what we get in Pittu's hilarious and slightly heartbreaking portrayal of Dr. Sedgwick, whose disappointment over an unhappy childhood and losing the Nobel Prize fuels his desire to "take down" Superman. This marvelous actor knows just how far to go over the top and steals every scene he's in, although Swenson gives him a run for his money in their vaudevillian duet, "You've Got What I Need."
In a theatrical season that has been too often less-than-exhilarating, this Superman is just what our town needs. It's a shame he can't stay longer than Sunday.