Remember how great Christopher Reeve made you feel when you watched him play Superman with his crooked, toothy grin in the corny 1970’s movie of the same name? He was so strong and wise and confident and beneficent, everything an all-American guy aspired to be and all any all-American girl wanted to date. He radiated so much sparkling charm as bumbling, shy Clark Kent, he wasn’t the least bit annoying or nerdy. And when he flew, ooh la la, he made your heart leap and soar with him.
After months of publicity, Dallas Theater Center opened a major re-tooling of the 1966 Charles Strouse and Lee Adams musical It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman, to an enthused, nearly full house in Dallas’ Wyly Theatre June 25, 2010. Alas, Superman as presented here and portrayed by Matt Cavenaugh just doesn’t compare to Christopher Reeve’s film creation and leaves the production flat for the lack. He’s too slender and androgynous as the Man and too petulant, uninspired and indecisive as Clark Kent to engender empathy. His singing veers into nasal reediness, occasionally drowned out by the orchestra. His flying looks stiff and tentative, executed on a single flat line from one stage right entrance spot to downstage center, never in front of the proscenium arch. He completes one very careful somersault in Act II. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang gave bigger flying thrills when it toured at the State Fair Music Hall.
It seems the original show had problems with the book by David Newman and Robert Benton. Award-winning stage, HBO and Marvel Comics writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa came in to pep things up for the DTC production. Not enough. A musical about Superman where the main character is a villain named Max Menken (Patrick Cassidy, son of Jack who originated the role on Broadway), not Superman, and the least interesting female character onstage is Superman’s girlfriend Lois Lane (Zakiya Young), presents challenges hard to surmount. Secondary leads gossip columnist Sydney Sharp (Jennifer Powers) and Max’s Girl Friday, Miss Marilyn Nesbitt (Cara Statham Serber), develop the strongest characters and have the best songs, as well as the finest musical theatre voices in the show. They overshadow Lois Lane.
The musical score, itself, (revised orchestrations and arrangements by Eugene Gwozdz) offers nothing particularly memorable. Songs possess a sameness throughout, with no climactic crescendos or suspenseful minor keys, no show-stopping tune that allows a really fine singer to showcase a splendid set of pipes or a spectacular dancer to wow and awe with amazing moves. The most energy arises whenever Max’s “Secret Society of Super Villains” takes stage, and they seem to belong to a different show than the main characters, more at home in a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party than in a Metropolis. The musical is set in the 1930’s, but numerous jokes and asides focus on current humor/events, which lends the production an air of incongruity and confusion. Max refers to Superman as an “illegal alien who bypassed Ellis Island” and Roosevelt’s New Deal as a “stimulus package”. A child on a train refers repeatedly to his Superman doll as “an action figure.” Which period is the show set in?
The set, by Beowulf Boritt, is spectacular, with fly-rail drops of towering back-lit skyscrapers upstage, painted with rakish visual perspective to add dimensional height against a brilliant blue sky backdrop. Costumes by Jennifer Caprio work in some cases—the “Secret Society of Super Villains” exudes an effective Brechtian decadence, a delight to the eye every time the curtain opens on them. Superman’s flying costume recalls the comic hero well; but his Clark Kent suit in red, white and blue to match the palette of his Superman costume looks overdone and clownish. Joel Ferrell’s stage choreography, always sharp and professional, works as well as can be hoped for with the show’s limited musical inventiveness.
It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman: it’s no musical theatre hit, but. Consider it a wholesome G-rated entertainment, perfect for that special family outing where both grandma and teen-agers can enjoy themselves equally well. I, for one, miss Christopher Reeve.
The Dallas Theater Center presents It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman, directed by Kevin Moriarty, at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, A T & T Performing Arts Center, in Dallas through July 25.
TICKETS: 214-880-0202, or http://www.dallastheatercenter.org