It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman flies again.
It’s been 75 years since Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster began developing their most enduring creation, Superman, a character who would go on to change the shape of pop culture forever. The first bona-fide comic book superhero, the spandex-clad refugee from outer space inspired whole universes of imitators, each more improbable and yet strangely influential than the next, and our collective fascination for the modern pantheons of nigh-invincible beings remains virtually unabated, as one glance at a list of blockbuster movies starring caped crusaders and misunderstood mutants can attest.
While superheroes might mean big business in the movies, aside from the infamous (albeit income-generating) debacle that is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, they’ve only rarely ventured to Broadway, and here again, was Superman the pioneer. A (very) minor Broadway hit in its day, the goofy 60s-era It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman channels the campy vibe of Adam West’s Batman and the relentless cheeriness of an Archie comic. Newly revived by 42nd Street Moon in honor of Superman’s 75th anniversary on earth, the musical is as clean-scrubbed as the titular role, whom mere mortals sometimes exasperatedly refer to as an overgrown “Boy Scout,” recalling times of more innocent entertainment if not actual innocence.
42nd Street Moon embraces this innocence with playful flair. The costume palette (designed by Felicia Lilienthal) appears to have been lifted straight from Warren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy film, and the cartoon-panel backdrop (courtesy of Alvin Shiu) from a book of Lichtenstein prints. At strategic moments, giant word balloons and cardboard computers crowd the stage, and our hero frequently demonstrates his flying “prowess” by leaping clumsily into the wings. Even the villains turn out to be, if not exactly sympathetic, good comic relief, and their sinister goal is not so much to take over the planet so much as to take Superman, representative of perfection, down a notch, the preferred pastime of the small-minded.
Probably best not to dwell on the outdated gender roles that punctuate much of the action, a regrettable by-product of those “innocent” times, but at least the primary criminal mastermind of the show is not only female but also a mad scientist, Dr. Agnes Sedgwick (Darlene Popovic), proving, however thinly, that there is more to the double-chromosomed life than pining for the unattainable as does Lois Lane (Jen Brooks) or soothing the inflated egos of megalomaniacal employers as does glamorous office flirt, Sydney (Safiya Fredericks).
Lucas Coleman as Clark Kent/Superman plays his dual characters with an eager beaver likability, and a humanizing streak of self-doubt that ties both of his identities together just as surely as the single spit curl that dangles across his brow. His arch-nemesis Max Mencken (Brent Schindele) practically steals the show on the strength of his bright yellow loafers and hoofing technique alone, but his last moment of would-be glory is appropriately deflated (kids, crime doesn’t pay, and neither does petty spite!) and it’s all’s-well-that-ends-well for our underrooed protagonist, his best girl, and even for the second-tier criminal element, the hilariously inept Grimaldi family, who make tracks back to the Mamma-land before you can say arrivederci. Sure you could tap into a similar zeitgeist with a stack of Silver-age comics, but comics won’t sing to you. That’s a unique angle that 42nd Street Moon has totally got covered.
It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman
Through Oct. 20, $25-$75
215 Jackson, SF