Simon, 15 years old and an aspiring comic book creator, is disappointed. His neighbor Jim in Apartment 4-B can’t walk through walls, and has no secret cave; he doesn’t even drive a “super kickass car.”
Having been found out as a person with superpowers, Jim comes clean to Simon about what his life is like: “It’s absolutely nothing like any superhero movie, or comic book, or video game, or anything else you ever saw, ever,”
The same can be said of “Superhero.” The new musical by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and John Logan (Red) at Second Stage is not like the typical superhero movie or comic book. That’s both good and bad, but mostly bad. And, although it features a serviceable if unmemorable score, a fine design scheme, and, above all, a superb cast — especially the splendid Kate Baldwin — “Superhero” is full of disappointments. That’s less a judgment than a literal description of the musical.
What makes “Superhero” an atypical superhero story is not that Jim (Bryce Pinkham) is an unemployed bus driver, who tries to save people on the side. If Jim might be unusually morose for a superhero, Spiderman, after all, is just a nerdy high school student.
The designers also do a good job of establishing a comic book feel. Beowulf Boritt’s set is a series of frames (as if comic book panels) and Tal Yarden’s projections bring to life Simon’s drawings of his newly imagined comic book hero, The Amazing Sea-Mariner. There’s even a song early on, during which Simon appears dressed in a red hoodie that obscures his face, and then suddenly multiple figures in red hoodies rush acrobatically around the stage — precisely (and surely deliberately) recalling a similar scene in “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.”
What makes “Superhero” different from what you might expect from a musical entitled “Superhero” is that the character with the superpowers is not even the main character. Jim’s story is scant and secondary; he is primarily a device. The musical focuses on Simon (Kyle McArthur) and his mother Charlotte (Kate Baldwin), an untenured professor of Romance literature, and the difficulty they have been having in dealing with the death of Simon’s father two years earlier in a car crash.
Looked at most charitably, the creative team has chosen to downplay Jim’s superpowers as a way of emphasizing the musical’s underlying theme: Life is full of disappointments, and you can’t expect to be saved from them; you just have to live with them. Each character in the musical is disappointed by life in various ways. Jim is disappointed that despite his mission to help people and his powers, he can only save half the people he would like to save. Charlotte is disappointed she can’t connect with her son. Vee (Salena Qureshi), a senior for whom Simon harbors a secret crush, is disappointed that climate change will make the earth uninhabitable in a hundred years — and (implicitly) that nobody can save the planet.
In one of the several explicit expressions of the theme (and one of too few comic moments in the show), Simon sings “I’ll Save The Girl,” agonizing over whether to stand up and protect Vee from her ex-boyfriend Dwayne (Jake Levy) who seems to be menacing her:
Do I have the strength?
Can I find the will?
Could I spring to action, instead of standing still? Could I save her?
– until, he sees Vee talk back to the suddenly sheepish Dwayne. Now, Simon sings
When you’re in danger—
Call on Vee
She is fearless and courageous, the kind of hero I could never be
I didn’t save the girl…
But can the girl save me?
As earnest and well intentioned as the show’s theme may be, it seems to come at the expense of the fun usually associated with superhero fantasies. The science fiction element feels like little more than a shoddy graft onto the body of the musical, which is a domestic drama. The body doesn’t even bother to reject the graft; it largely ignores it. A couple of quick stage effects in Act I establish that Jim has superpowers – in one, he crushes a fire hydrant. And a short dialogue with Simon in Act II establishes Jim’s skimpy origin story, which couldn’t withstand much scrutiny: He is an alien from a distant planet who’s been dispatched “to help those in need….Once we leave our home world we can never return, and we go alone.”
Mostly, Jim is just another lonely, socially inept guy.
If “Superhero” is really just another sad family drama, still, there are moving moments in it. Simon pushes his mother to invite Jim to dinner so that Simon can learn more about him (“The only people who get behind the superhero’s mask are the women they date,” he tells her with authority and impatience.) During that first meal together, Pinkham and Baldwin sing “How Do You Do This Again,” a lovely duet of separate, interior monologues
…all you’ve come to know
Feels somehow out of date
All this, and it’s only ten to eight.
How I’ve longed for easy conversation
Nervous that I might say something strange
Charlotte and Jim:
I never thought I’d have another night like this
And it’s nice to be wrong for a change...
Jim is unable to sustain the budding romance with Charlotte because (device alert!) he keeps on hearing voices in his head of those in need, and he has to rush off to try to save them. I suppose this can count as a metaphor. Let’s face it, superhero or schlub, Jim is kind of dull and (theme alert!) unreliable.
Book by John Logan; Music and lyrics by Tom Kitt; Directed by Jason Moore
Set design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Sarah Laux, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound
Design by Brian Ronan, projection design by Tal Yarden,
Julia Abueva, Kate Baldwin, Jake Levy, Kyle McArthur, Bryce Pinkham, Salena Qureshi and Thom Sesma
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Superhero is scheduled to run through March 31, 2019