Superhero Offers a Musical Peek Into the Depressing Life of a Caped Crusader
Tom Kitt and John Logan team up for a new musical.
If the writers of Superhero, the new musical at Second Stage Theater, have a superpower, it is almost certainly transparency: We can see through every cliché and contrivance that constitutes this psychobabble spin on America's favorite brand of mythology.
That would be the superhero story, which seems like the only thing Hollywood is putting significant money behind these days — and that's because these movies return their investments exponentially. Film audiences can't get enough of Spider-Man and his ilk, but theater audiences are less enthusiastic, if the hulking wreckage of Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark is any indication. Even scrappy off-Broadway efforts like Brooklynite have tended to disappoint. Sadly, Superhero isn't going to break that trend.
It's about Simon (Kyle McArthur), a teenage comic book enthusiast and illustrator who spends hours on his fire escape dreaming up new characters and adventures. It's a passion that he inherited from his late father, who died in a tragic accident two years back. His mother, Charlotte (Kate Baldwin), wishes he would talk about it, but Simon prefers to keep his feelings to himself. That includes his crush on Vee (Salena Qureshi), a beautiful (and recently single) classmate. But when he notices the strange behavior of his neighbor Jim (a convincingly extraterrestrial Bryce Pinkham), Simon has to share his suspicions with mom: The guy is definitely a superhero in disguise.
The songs (forgettable ditties with titles like "I'll Save the Girl" and "My Dad, the Superhero") are by Tom Kitt, who composed the Tony-winning score for Next to Normal with lyricist Brian Yorkey (this is Kitt's first major credit as a lyricist). The charmless book is by John Logan, who penned the book (with Yorkey) for the Sting musical The Last Ship; he returns to Broadway this summer with Moulin Rouge! The combination of their proclivities proves deadly, resulting in the predictable tale of a depressed superhero and his neighbors, whose neuroses are parsed to death by a series of introspective ballads. Who needs mind control when you can just bore the innocent people of Gotham into submission?
In Simon, Kitt and Logan have devised the most unlikable musical protagonist in recent memory, making it very difficult for us to invest in his happy ending. Elliot Rodger-like, he fancies himself a good guy deserving of the affections of the underwritten Vee. Yet with every nasty comment to his mother, he proves himself the opposite. It's not McArthur's fault that he's portraying such a loathsome brat, but his whiny (and occasionally sharp) tenor does little to endear Simon to us. It seems as though the writers expect us to cut Simon some slack since his dad died — as if the vast majority of humanity doesn't also experience the death of a parent. It was two years ago and it's no excuse to treat his surviving parent like garbage. I spent much of Superhero's two hours and 20 minutes hoping that she would slap some sense into him.
Of course, I was disappointed: Charlotte is the Giving Tree in a bob haircut. Baldwin does her utmost to breathe life into this cardboard cutout of a single mom, including a valiant rendition of a song that has her folding laundry and lamenting the hapless state of her manless existence. She sings, "My boy needs his father / And I need my husband / It isn't like I'm asking for the moon / I'd settle for a tear-free afternoon." It's safe to assume that Superhero won't be holding any joint talkbacks with the cast of Gloria: A Life.
The other actors struggle with similarly thin roles: As Vee's jerky ex-boyfriend, Jake Levy does what he can with a character that feels like a placeholder for a role that Logan never got around to writing. By contrast, Thom Sesma lends an air of mystery to Vic, the surly landlord who feels like he must have been more significant in earlier drafts. And with Vee already such an afterthought, we barely recall her sidekick, Rachel (Julia Abueva).
Despite a troubled script, Jason Moore directs a competent production that is only hindered by a couple of campy visual effects (by Chris Fisher). Beowulf Boritt's set is a series of frames, creating multiple planes and levels on which Moore is able to stage the action. It also provides flat surfaces for Simon's drawings, which are imaginatively rendered by projection designer Tal Yarden. Brian Ronan's sound design enforces a sturdy balance between the vocalists and the offstage orchestra. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Sarah Laux costumes this contemporary superhero story without ever resorting to spandex. This is, after all, meant to be a fresh take on well-trod territory.
But is it really? From Superman's Fortress of Solitude to Uncle Ben's warning that "with great power comes great responsibility," we're already pretty aware that being a superhero is a lonely, crappy vocation. That makes Superhero feel pretty redundant, like Batman showing up to save the day when Wonder Woman has already done the job.