The Man of Steel Sings! Superman Soars in Encores! Concert Revival
By Steven Suskin
The sweetly satiric 1966 Broadway musical It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman twisted its way back to New York on March 20, in a City Center Encores! concert revival playing to March 24. Playbill was there.
Encores! continues its 20th anniversary season with Lee Adams & Charles Strouse's It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman, the 1966 musical which Harold Prince produced and directed just prior to Cabaret. The show was a quick failure in its time, but in its present incarnation Superman leaps, bounds and soars.
Leading the way is a brightly tune-filled score, in some ways a musically-updated companion to the authors' 1960 hit, Bye Bye Birdie. Superman is a comic-strip musical, not only based on a strip but constructed in broad strokes with breathless, comic-book dialogue. There is even a second-act scene — leading to the climax — that takes place in six separate comic-book panes, which is simply but effectively staged here.
Director John Rando (A Christmas Story, Urinetown) captures just the right tone for this spiffed-up concert version: the music, the cast and the physical production all work together to create two hours of drolly off-beat joy. Edward Watts, who earlier this season had the ignominious task of playing Adam-with-fig-leaf as Aimee Semple McPherson's lover in Scandalous, makes a fine showing as the invulnerable but conflicted "man of steel." He is matched by Jenny Powers (Little Women) as a feisty Lois Lane.
But the central duo is overshadowed by three hams. Will Swenson (Hair, Priscilla Queen of the Desert) essays the nasty gossip columnist Max Mencken. This role was written around Jack Cassidy, who in some ways seems still to inhabit it, but the silkily snaky Swenson reveals hitherto hidden comic talent. David Pittu (LoveMusik, Is He Dead?) provides antic fun as mad scientist and "ten-time Nobel Prize loser" Abner Sedgwick. They are matched by the lesser-known Alli Mauzey — the present Glinda in Wicked — as the on-the-make secretary Sydney who sees sexual possibilities in the asexual Clark Kent.
Choreographer Joshua Bergasse (and Emmy winner for his work on "Smash") keeps his ensemble of 18 jumping — and fruging — with an especially fine job in the first-act finale "It's Super Nice." John Lee Beatty extends the comic strip touch with his cutout scenery, and provides a deliciously low-tech method of keeping the hero up in the Metropolis sky. Beatty and costumer Paul Tazewell manage to give the production a cartoonist's ink, popsicle-color look; and Ken Billington fills the stage with light beams. Rando's production, all told, looks as perky as the percolating score.
One of the problems with Superman from the present-day vantage point was its non-PC use of a team of Chinese Communist acrobats ("The Flying Lings") as terrorists. Two of the Chinese Lings are now clearly non-Chinese, and stereotypically offensive dialogue (if any existed in the past) is absent in Jack Viertel's swift-paced concert adaptation of David Newman and Robert Benton's original. What's more, their two big acrobatic scenes — impressive feats mixed with outsized laughs — earn ovations.
Composer Strouse has continually demonstrated, before and since, a gift for buoyant melody (from "Put on a Happy Face" to "Tomorrow"). Superman shows him in one of his jauntiest moods, as typified by "You've Got Possibilities," "You're the Woman for the Man" and "You've Got What I Need." His group numbers, which borrow the beat from TV's "Hullabaloo" and the like, are especially joyful. Adams, on the other hand, peaked here; this is one of the most delicious, pun-filled set of lyrics of its time. (Lois Lane rues her unrequited romance with the Man in the Cape, longing for "a guy with both feet on the ground" who wants more than just a "fly-by-night" affair.) The lyricist's career mysteriously faded after the 1970 musical Applause, with Strouse going on to work with a variety of other lyricists. Adams at his best, as evidenced by Superman, was a worthy peer to Harnick, Ebb et al.
Adding to the excitement is the chance to hear jazz great Eddie Sauter's original orchestrations. While few theatre fans can separate the work of orchestrator from composer, Superman is a good example of what an inventive orchestrator can do (and Strouse has been generous in his praise of Sauter's work). The overture is a mix of growling brass and blaring saxophones goosed by a wild xylophone, with exotic touches from a Chinese gong. One of the songs — "We Don't Matter at All," set in a scientist's lab — makes uncanny use of woodwinds, which seem to bubble like boiling-over test-tubes. Rob Berman and the Encores! orchestra make it all sparkle; one wonders how Berman was able to keep his inner-metronome ticking, rehearsing Superman by day and conducting the acclaimed revival of Sondheim and Lapine's Passion (at Classic Stage Company) by night.
This is a comic strip musical, the sort of self-kidding, broadly written lark that Broadway audiences have become accustomed to. Back then, though, people didn't get the joke; youngsters did, but middle-aged, middle-class ticketbuyers couldn't begin to understand the appeal. Superman fit right in line with what was then one of television's biggest hits, the drolly tongue-in-cheek "Batman" (which offered two new episodes a week). But teenagers needed parents to buy tickets at a steep $12 top for Superman, while "Batman" was free TV.
Superman was initially announced by Encores! for the 2002 season but was hastily canceled after the events of Sept. 11. (The first act ends with a terrorist bombing of City Hall.) A new version of the show, with the score grafted to a new libretto by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, was presented in 2010 at Dallas Theater Center. The Encores production demonstrates that the original Superman, presented with the right slyly-gleeful attitude, is just dandy.
(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's The Book Shelf, On the Record and The DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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