In The Dallas Theater Center's Super-fun Superman Musical, You Don't Need X-Ray Vision To See Deeper Themes.
Yes, he flies. Superman, an American icon in blazing blue tights, red cape and sassy leather boots, soars into view and lands like a muscle-queen Peter Pan on the stage of the Wyly Theatre. In Dallas Theater Center's bright, funny, downright inspiring remake of the 1966 musical It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman, the title character, played by ruggedly handsome young Broadway leading man Matt Cavenaugh, flies in early enough to set the audience buzzing. Sure, you can see the wires hooked to his sides, but it's still a kick when the guy swoops in and then, in that trademark fists-forward stance, flies out again.
With a cast of local stars and imported New York pros, including swoony, silver-haired stage and TV veteran Patrick Cassidy as super-villain Max Menken (the role his late father, Jack Cassidy, originated), this whole show takes glorious flight, up, up and away beyond all expectations of what DTC and artistic director Kevin Moriarty would do with it. If they choose to take it elsewhere after the monthlong run at the Wyly, and they should, there are enough winning elements in Superman to make it the next great American musical comedy. Certainly it already has more going for it than most of the Broadway tours now out on the road (spare us another dose of Mary Poppins, who flies around in a boring mega-flop). And it has more pop as a pop culture product now that the book from the original version has been replaced with a wise, witty libretto completely re-imagined and written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a Marvel Comics author, playwright and screenwriter (for HBO's polygamy dramedy Big Love).
The score has been updated too, polished and added to for the re-mount by the original composing team, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, both in their 80s. (Together they created the Broadway hits Bye Bye Birdie and Applause. Strouse, with lyricist Martin Charnin, also wrote the songs for Annie.)
New orchestrations and arrangements by the brilliant Eugene Gwozdz have lifted Superman's tunes out of the go-go era. The show sounds hot and contemporary now (though the nine-musician pit at DTC is thin), but with a traditional Broadway "button" to every number that gives it all a classic big-musical feel. The one memorable song from the show's short run on Broadway in 1966, the flirty, syncopated "You've Got Possibilities," could serve as the theme for Dallas Theater Center's current production. This is the first thing Moriarty's directed here that has real possibilities for going places.
There's more work to do on Superman, some tightening at the top of the show, a trim of a song here and there. Maybe a switch in roles between the two leading ladies would make sense. But here's the rare non-hit musical that has been successfully revived and revised, saved from becoming a relic as a Broadway show that didn't live up to its potential.
Visually and technically, it's a stunning piece of big-budget theater. The enormous, complicated scenery by Beowulf Boritt exploits all of the Wyly's whizbang mechanical tricks (the show begins with young Kal-El's rocket lifting off from Krypton, which is pretty cool, even if the ship is a little shaky). Jennifer Caprio's costumes come in splashes of vivid solids that make all the characters instantly identifiable. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter is wowzapalooza.
All of it should and will play just fine for kids—nothing in the material is the least bit un-family-friendly. But Aguirre-Sacasa, in his value-added take on the well-known mythology created by Superman comic book writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, is too savvy to stop there. He has cleverly woven in some darker stuff for the grown-ups. Nothing heavy. Just a hint at themes a few layers deeper than other Superman spin-offs, including the wooden-gestured Christopher Reeve movies and the Smallville TV series.
You don't have to listen all that carefully, for instance, to catch allusions to Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy about a different kind of "Superman" in the struggle between the ordinary human, Clark Kent, who believes in God and man's innate goodness, and Grinchy bermensch Max (the show's Lex Luthor-like character, but with hair), who can't tolerate human weakness or gin up empathy. Max manipulates the city of Metropolis to his evil ends, but ultimately fails as a corrupt despot because he spurns the one woman who loves him, his loyal secretary, Miss Nessbit (wonderful Dallas musical comedy actress Cara Statham Serber in her first role at DTC). She becomes an Enron-ian whistleblower, bless her broken heart.
It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman reaches beyond a basic "good vs. evil" plot with a spiritual message that says "the greatest power is to inspire goodness." And from goodness comes a love connection. Lois Lane (Zakiya Young) loves Superman madly. But rather than blow his cover to win her over, Clark wants her to love his basic human self. He's a good guy, in and out of the tights. And there you have the romantic triangulation of a woman torn between man's ego and his super-ego-honey; we've all been there.
Aguirre-Sacasa's spiffy script for It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman, set in 1939, wraps itself so skillfully around the bouncy Strouse-Adams score that it's a treat to find that the playwright has loaded his dialogue with "Easter eggs" for comics lovers, history buffs, movie fans and theater geeks. He has Superman saving Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose from crashing. (It happens offstage because, come on, it has to.) Lois Lane drinks apple Metropolitinis. A little boy with a Superman doll insists it's an "action figure."
Determined to unmask Superman's real identity, sexy Daily Planet gossipeuse Sydney Sharp digs into the story. (She's played by Jennifer Powers, a knockout singer and comedienne who's Cavenaugh's real-life missus. If Powers and Young switched roles, the show would be nearly perfect.) Sydney can't believe how hard it is to convince her newsroom that there's only a pair of nerdy black horn-rims between Clark and his alter ego, thus expressing what every Superman fan has thought for the past 70 years. And then there's this little gift from Aguirre-Sacasa when Max finally comes face to face with Superman for the climactic second act showdown: "We've had this date from the beginning, you and I." That's Stanley Kowalski's line to Blanche DuBois in Streetcar. Love that.
There's a lot to love in this singing, dancing Super-duper-man extravaganza. Enough winky camp to link it to the Reeve movies, but a fiercely loyal tie-in to the comic books, with some of the straight-up apple pie attitude of the black-and-white 1950s TV series.
Moriarty's direction and the choreography by DTC company member Joel Ferrell fit the cast like the big man's custom-tailored leotards. Ferrell hired in four dynamic New York dancers—Kent Zimmerman (who was also assistant choreographer), Steven Wenslawski, Chris Klink and Matthew J. Kilgore—though everyone in this all-Equity cast hoofs it impressively.
Cute as Cavenaugh is as the caped one, it's Patrick Cassidy who's the major star in this Metropolis. Channeling the teeth-clenching glee his dad brought to comic bad-guy roles (check out Jack in The Eiger Sanction), Cassidy, brother to Shaun and half-brother of David (the Bieber of the 1970s), is superbly entertaining. His two-footed standing hop to a tabletop for a bit of the old vaudeville hat-and-cane routine is musical theater eye candy. Cavenaugh is fine as the Man of Steel, but he can't top Cassidy as the Man of Stealing Scenes.
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