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Theatre in Review: Superhero (Second Stage)

Thom Sesma, Kyle McArthur. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Superhero, a new musical, reserves its store of originality for the second act; before that, John Logan's book circles around its sad, small central situation, which feels both oddly familiar and lacking in color. Fifteen-year-old Simon lives with his mother, Charlotte, an assistant professor of literature who can't bring herself to finish a book she's writing about a minor romantic poet. The pair is stuck in other ways, too: Simon's father died in an accident and neither mother nor son seems capable of moving beyond this traumatic event. Charlotte has relocated them from the suburbs to the city, where Simon is flailing, unable to make friends. A gifted cartoonist, he imagines creating his own comic book series, centered around his own invention, Sea-Mariner. (He and his dad shared a passion for comics.) The opening number lays out Sea-Mariner's character while simultaneously baring Simon's yearning for a moral universe where good is rewarded, evil punished, and accidents never happen.

Whenever Charlotte interrupts the boy's fantasy life, they find themselves at odds. She can't get him to talk about the accident, which he witnessed; her urging him to get into the high school social swing falls on deaf ears. Instead, Simon tears into her for not moving ahead with her own career. It is a little eerie to be sitting in the audience at Second Stage, seeing characters that uncannily mirror those of Dear Evan Hansen, which played its initial New York engagement here. There are other similarities: Simon yearns after Vee, a popular, take-charge classmate who is organizing a workshop on climate change and barely knowns the boy is alive. An amusing number, "Save the Girl," details Simon's fantasies of rescuing Vee from her mouthy, domineering boyfriend, and it ends with a vivid demonstration of Vee's ability to take care of herself.

Much of Logan's writing, and the music and lyrics by Tom Kitt, treat this situation with honesty and insight, but the first act is afflicted with a certain drabness. We've been here before, under more exciting circumstances; the highly professional, often melodic score does little to heighten the mundane situation and characters. Much of the first act focuses on Charlotte's attempts -- egged on by Simon -- at making a connection with Jim, a reclusive, out-of-work bus driver who lives in their building. Jim, a loner with, apparently, no outside interests, is wary and watchful, barely responsive to her overtures. Superhero is about loneliness, loss, and stasis -- subjects that collectively constitute a tall order in the musical theatre.

However, Simon has seen Jim, in an unguarded moment, pummel a fire hydrant out of shape. The boy becomes convinced that Jim -- who carries about the aura of a loser -- is really a superhero. This suspicion is confirmed in a niftily staged Act I finale, when Simon catches Jim blasting off the roof of their apartment building. As Jim is forced to admit, he is a refugee from a far-off planet, dispatched to fight evil on earth; he can turn himself into pure energy, which enables him to circle the globe in seconds and save potential victims from disasters, natural and otherwise. It's a boy's dream come true -- especially for a boy desperately in need of a father figure. He immediately begins imagining himself as Robin to Jim's Batman, but the older man has plenty of cold water to throw on that notion. In a number regrettably titled "It's Not Like in the Movies," Jim pours out his anguish over a life spent in solitude, keeping himself available for heroic feats at a moment's notice. Indeed, the responsibility is killing him: "I tried to walk way/So I won't wake each day/With cries of anguish in my head/But if I disappear/You'll all implode, that's clear/It's gotten worse and worse with each passing year."

It's a fascinating notion, but the show's focus quickly returns to Simon, Charlotte, and their shared malaise. (Indeed, Jim is only a so-so superhero: He reveals that he beamed himself off to Honduras to rescue people in a bus accident. "So what happened?" Simon asks. "I saved half of them," Jim says, sadly.) By now it should be clear that Superhero is suffering from a case of clinical depression, and the introduction of a little extraterrestrial fantasy does nothing to liven things up. This is a musical in which romance is either a nonstarter or logistically impossible, the death of an offstage character hangs over the action, and the best that anyone can hope for is a devastating burst of pain that might provide an emotional breakthrough. I'm not saying you can't make a musical out of such downbeat material, but the approach here is, arguably, too conventional to pay off.

The real superheroes of Superhero are Kate Baldwin and Bryce Pinkham, as Charlotte and Jim. She invests everything she does with a rueful self-knowledge, a pained awareness that everything for which she criticizes Simon is equally true of herself. She makes an Act I lament, "Laundry for Two," into a quiet meditation on a life derailed by tragedy. She also brings considerable flair -- a mixture of wonderment and horror -- to "It Happens to You," in which she begins to consider the possibility that Jim might be more than he seems. Pinkham, at first appearing exactly like that person you shrink from in the elevator, unbuttons his manner by degrees, developing a palpable affection for Charlotte and Simon even while struggling with the certainty that he is no good for them. Making his professional debut, Kyle McArthur has a big singing voice and real stage presence, but he never taps into Simon's bedrock vulnerability. The character has had his heart broken and is wary of any further emotional involvement, but instead of conveying his fear and hurt, he too often comes off as another irritable teen; even when he opens his heart at a school presentation, he remains oddly self-contained. Thom Sesma is, as always, a thorough pro as the crusty, comics-loving superintendent, who takes in more than he is willing to admit.

Beowulf Boritt's inventive set design, which features a series of slanted portals cut out of brick walls -- backed by a New York skyline -- looks like a series of cartoon panels that have been tossed onto the stage. Tal Yarden's projections bring to life Kyle's Sea-Mariner sketches; they look exactly like the sort of thing a raw, but talented, kid might come up with. Chris Fisher's illusion design lends an extra kick to the end of the first act. Sarah Laux's costumes, Jen Schriever's lighting, and Brian Ronan's natural sound design are all solid.

The later portion is the strongest, as all three characters are forced to make decisions that they have been avoiding all along, and the final numbers, "Superman is Dead" and the title tune, aim directly for the heart of the sorrows that have afflicted Charlotte and Simon. But this is a distressingly monochromatic affair, often humorless and devoted to working a narrow range of feelings. In a musical theatre market oversupplied with stories of teen angst, it is simply not super enough. -- David Barbour


(18 March 2019)

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