There’s a moment in the finale of It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman in which the company sings (and I quote) “A-wah-o-wah-o-wah-o-wah-o.” This nonsensical lyric, set in one single measure, encapsulates the joyous silliness of the 1966 musical about the Man of Steel, a light-hearted caper in which two-dimensionality is not only allowed, but encouraged. The musical of Superman gently sends up the square Clark Kent/Superman character and ideal, but it is never overtly self-aware or mocking. It’s also a delicious slice of mid-60s nostaglia, with a period sound that bridges the gap between Broadway brass and the pop flavor of the day. Superman is light, effervescent, and tuneful, and John Rando’s production is the best Encores! has presented since the charming No, No, Nanette in 2008.
The original production closed after 129 performances, in spite of some good notices. Many point to the campy TV series Batman as a major factor in the show’s quick demise. While Superman isn’t groundbreaking, it’s certainly a pleasant divertissement. Certain familiar characters from the Superman universe, including Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luthor, were not involved in the musical. The librettists Robert Benton and David Newman (who later wrote the screenplay for the Christopher Reeve classic), created several new characters for the stage production, while creating a formulaic plot that plays out like an issue of a comic book. There’s not much conflict,but it’s a helluva lot of fun.
Ed Watts was the perfect embodiment of both Clark Kent and Superman; the physique, the look, the tone were all spot-on. And the man can sing like it’s nobody’s business. Jenny Powers brought lovely vocals and some spirit to Lois Lane, a role that can easily get lost among the more colorful characters. The two requisite bad guys, snake oil columnist Mencken (a game Will Swenson) and Dr. Sedgwick (David Pittu, in an inspired comic villain turn) and their vaudeville duet brought down the house. Alli Mauzey was the quirky Sydney, Mencken’s sexy secretary, scoring big with her two numbers (including the show’s breakout song “You’ve Got Possibilities”).
This is one of the most fully realized stagings I’ve ever seen at Encores!, with a comic strip flavored set and vibrant period costumes. Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel did the book adaptation this time around, trimming the libretto to allow a brisk path from song to song while maintaining the gentle satiric element. Director John Rando gives the material the perfect touch; with a quick pace, and some inventive staging (the second act reprise of “It’s Superman” staged as a comic strip was an inspired homage to the original production). Joshua Bergasse’s infectious choreography felt like something straight out of Hullabaloo, with many delightful references to famed 60s moves. At a time when it seems the Broadway is rife with “everything but the kitchen sink” choreography, Superman proved a much-needed antidote. I regret that I was unfamiliar with Mr. Bergasse’s work until now (I have never seen “So You Think You Can Dance” and I gave up on Smash after the pilot), but I do hope that I get to see more of his vital work on any NY stage soon.
Of course the star of the Encores! evening is the score. Charles Strouse’s infectious music is insanely catchy, and Lee Adams’ lyrics are wonderfully clever. Eddie Sauter’s orchestrations are spectacular, with a touch of ’60s Broadway, a touch of jazz and an edge that makes the entire score of Superman extra special. Sauter’s Entr’acte is among the finest ever created for a musical. The charts were played with verve by the Encores! orchestra, conducted by the ebullient Rob Berman.
Now, I’m not saying that Superman should transfer to Broadway, since that would be a great financial risk. However, I could have easily seen this production five more times. I’d settle for a cast album. Just sayin’…