Although there is a great deal of talent behind the new musical Superhero at Second Stage Theater, it unfortunately makes little impact. It doesn’t help that the thin book by Tony Award winning playwright John Logan (Red) is a little too much like the smash hit Dear Evan Hansen which goes much deeper with similar material. Pulitzer Prize winning composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) has written his own lyrics for the first time and they mainly tell us what we know in pedestrian rhymes and phrases. Don’t blame the hard-working cast led by Tony Award nominees Kate Baldwin and Bryce Pinkham. You want to like Superhero with its heart in the right place but it is missing the wow factor and never takes us by surprise.
When we first meet Simon Branson, he is a 15-year-old loner who likes to sit on his fire escape drawing his own original superhero comic books. His father Mitch has died in a car accident two years previously and his mother Charlotte has moved them out of their house to an apartment in a new neighborhood. Simon doesn’t know anyone at school but he hasn’t tried very hard either. His mother, an assistant English professor of Romantic poetry, is supposed to be writing a book about 19th century poet John Clare but she has been unable to move on since her husband’s death and has also cut herself off from other people. Simon wonders about Jim, the mysterious man in Apartment 4B, who is both alone and very private. With his fertile imagination, he decides that he is either a superhero or a super villain. When fate throws Charlotte and Simon together with Jim in their building’s laundry room, the opportunity arises for Charlotte to ask Jim to dinner. Simon insists that she do so and that she ask him a great many questions to pierce his identity. At dinner, the tentative Jim proves that he has not been around a great many people recently and then he rushes out all of a sudden. Eventually a tepid romance grows between the lonely Charlotte and Jim.
When we find out Jim’s secret in Act Two it takes a great deal of suspension of disbelief. It might have helped there were a great many more details about the main characters. Simon is given a love interest in Vee, a girl he likes at school, but he is too shy to get to know her. Eventually, he helps out on her “100 Years to Save the Planet,” a presentation in the school auditorium but we don’t get to see them together too often. She has an ex-boyfriend Dwayne who has Neanderthal tendencies, when it comes to stepping in, Simon is too timid to confront him when he bullies her. Charlotte finally tries to get Simon to talk about his father but that does not break the ice. Another character who is not given much stage time is Vic, the landlord/super who it turns out shares an interest in superhero comic books with Simon.
A good deal of the plot is Psych I and much of the dramatic drift is predictable. The characters remain undeveloped except for a few unusual details which stand out like sore thumbs. The songs do not forward the story but repeat what has already been said in the dialogue, and there are too many reprises which only draw attention to the lack of novelty. Although the orchestrations have been created by two masters of the form (Michael Starobin and Tom Kitt who both have very impressive credits), the results sound pallid and lackluster.
The design team hasn’t helped a great deal. An initially clever gimmick is for us to see what Simon is drawing which simultaneously appears on the walls of the set in Tal Yarden’s projection design but this is dropped a little way into the show. Beowulf Boritt’s sets are six off-kilter picture frames with a skyscape of a great city in the distance, and except for the fire escape, a kitchen table and a bookcase there isn’t much more in the way of design elements. Sarah Laux’s costume design is rather bland colors aside from a sequence in which all of the boys in the neighborhood appear in red sweatshirts with the hoods pulled over their faces. Putting Simon in a Superman tee-shirt seems to show a lack of imagination. The lighting for the outdoor scenes is rather dark, and while the story suggests a great of magical moments, these are few and far between.
As 15-year-old Simon, Kyle McArthur embodies both anger and introspection without making him unique. Both Baldwin as Charlotte and Pinkham as Jim are sweetly sympathetic characters but have very little to work with. Ironically, Thom Sesma as the fierce and belligerent landlord/super makes a deeper impression with his sullen growl. As high school teenagers, Julia Abueva, Salena Qureshi and Jake Levy seem to be characters cut from Be More Chill, another more profound teen musical. Director Jason Moore keeps things moving without allowing the story to get under our skin. As most of the songs are solos or duets, Lorin Latarro isn’t given much to do in the musical staging department.
On paper, Superhero must have sounded like an inspired idea: lonely teenager dreams of creating a superhero comic in which the hero always comes home victorious as a result of seeing his father killed in an automobile accident. Unfortunately, as written by John Logan and Tom Kitt, the show is a great disappointment in that it resembles so many other teen musicals without adding much to the genre. The projection design never lets us into the world of superhero comics where a lonely child might find some solace or escape. Musical pros Kate Baldwin, Bryce Pinkham and Kyle McArthur attempt to breathe life into characters that are really only two dimensional.
Superhero (extended through March 31, 2019)
Second Stage Theater
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit http://www.2st.com
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission