It may seem strange that there's a Superman musical, but in a way it would be stranger if there wasn't one. The character that started the whole superhero craze in 1938, Superman has been in pretty much every form of media there is: comic books of course, but also radio shows, movie serials, TV shows, feature films, cartoons, novels, newspaper strips, videogames, ice shows, whatever. Dating from 1966, It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman is being revived right now for two reasons. One is that it's the 75th anniversary of the Man of Steel (and, equally importantly, of Lois Lane, the hardest-boiled reporter in comics). The other is that rediscovering and resuscitating long-forgotten musicals is what San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon does.
It's actually pretty easy to see why this particular musical has been stashed away in the dustbin of history. Now it plays as a period piece, but the truth is that it was hokey and old-fashioned even when it came out. The year it debuted is important, because 1966 is also when the Batman TV show premiered and became a huge sensation with a campy, self-consciously corny style. It's a Bird attempts to take a similar tactic with Superman, creating a brightly colored world where bank robbers wear striped shirts and domino masks and carry big sacks with dollar bills on them, and where the mod citizens of Metropolis launch into go-go dances for no particular reason. There's a cheery fight song called "Pow! Bam! Zonk!" with bright-colored sound-effect balloons to match. It's pretty darned silly, even more so than the comics were at the time -- and that's saying something at a time when Red Kryptonite exposure was frequently giving Superman the head of a lion or an ant, and Jimmy Olsen was traveling back in time to launch Beatlemania in the time (and place) of Samson and Delilah.
Michael Doppe, Scott Maraj, Lucas Coleman, Steven Sloan and Kyle Valentine.
There's no Jimmy Olsen in this show, though, and no Perry White or Lex Luthor either. The only characters from the comics to hit the stage are Supes and Lois, and the others made up for the musical are pretty lightweight. The bad guys are a frizzy-haired and absent-minded female scientist constantly passed over for the Nobel Prize in favor of less accomplished male colleagues (amusingly dotty Darlene Popovic); a smarmy and narcissistic gossip columnist (a delightfully entertaining Brent Schindele); and a goofy family of stereotypical Italian acrobats led by a mama born too soon for the reality TV where she'd be most at home (Diahanna Davidson, laying the accent on thick).
Director Dyan McBride's staging goes for the musical's camp appeal with gusto. There's a greatly revised version that debuted in Dallas in 2010 with a script rewritten by playwright and comic book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who also was called in to salvage Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), but 42nd Street Moon goes back to the unreformed original book by David Newman and Robert Benton, who also wrote the film Bonnie and Clyde and even worked on Superman: The Movie. Alvin Shiu's cutout set transforms the Eureka Theatre's small stage into a retro-futuristic cityscape, with the pronounced Ben-Day dots that Roy Lichtenstein made famous, but that he got from the four-color printing process of comic books in the first place. Costumer Felicia Lilienthal clads the Metropolitans in bright primary colors that really bring the comics aesthetic to life. Lucas Coleman's Superman costume is impressively credible as well, though not-always family-friendly below the belt. (I guess when you're invulnerable you don't need to wear a cup to fight crime.)
Lucas Coleman, Safiya Fredericks, Diahanna Davidson, Catherine Gloria, Nicole Renee Chapman, Ariel Leasure, Darlene Popovic, Brent Schindele, Trevor Marcom and Jen Brooks
Coleman makes a terrific Superman, though he really shines as Clark Kent, out-nerding Christopher Reeve's comically clumsy version to delightful effect. That dweeby energy carries over to his costumed persona as well, but that's what the musical calls for. This is a Superman who seems more at home rescuing cub scouts and posing at public appearances than fighting evil. (Though you have to love the special effect used for flying, which is just him leaping into and out of the wings.) Unflappable and perfect in every way, he's the ultimate do-gooder. In fact, he even sings a chatty song about his daily routine with the chorus "I'll never stop doing good." But what if he's demoralized by the dastardly secret weapon of psychoanalysis? Could this be the end of Superman?
Jen Brooks gives Lois Lane an air of indomitable confidence that serves her well, even though she has to sing "What I've Always Wanted," a song about settling down and being a wife. Besides the busy work of getting scoops and getting rescued, Lois spends the rest of the time being hit on by practically every male in the show -- the sleazy Max, a cheerily nihilistic scientist (Trevor Faust Marcom) -- but not the one she really wants to sweep her off her feet, the too-busy-for-smooching Superman. Even Clark gets some action; Max's taken-for-granted assistant and sometime girlfriend (a spunky Safiya Fredericks) turns her eye to the bumbling reporter and sings, "You've Got Possibilities," one of the best-written songs in the show. (Her take-down of Max, "Ooh, Do You Love You," is another highlight.)
Lucas Coleman rounds up some crooks as Superman.
Played by a two-man onstage orchestra of music director Dave Dobrusky on piano and Nick DiScala on woodwinds, the songs are corny as heck, but endearingly so. They're written by composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams, the team behind Bye Bye Birdy and Applause. (Strouse is responsible for Annie as well.) Some of the ditties win you over with their very goofiness, while in the more sentimental numbers you just have to trust that the songwriters were kidding (such as Superman sighing, "Why can't the strongest man in the world be the happiest man in the world?"). Staci Arriaga's bouncy choreography makes the most of the peppy enthusiasm of the city folk credited in the cast of characters as the "Mod Young Ladies of Metropolis." As ill-conceived as the musical may be, 42nd Street Moon mines it for all the nostalgic appeal and camp value it's worth, so that you kind of have to love it even if you can't quite like it.
It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman runs through October 20, 2013 at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit 42ndstmoon.org.
All photos by Patrick O'Connor.