Superhero is a strange musical: charming and also awkward; right in front of you and also playing hide and seek. It is lovely to look at thanks to Beowulf Boritt’s jagged frame within a frame staging of city views, as well as Jennifer Schreiver’s magic-tinged lighting, and cool projections of comic book characters climbing the walls (designed by Tal Yarden). But it is also a little underwritten and wan.
Dramatic but also quiet, the musical, which opened tonight at 2nd Stage‘s Tony Kiser Theatre (through March 31), is ultimately not about what you really think it’s going to be about, and while it can pay to play against audience expectation, in Superhero it feels strangely conceived.
Given the title, and given the framing of the play, directed with a nimble grace by Jason Moore, you think Superhero will be about the inner and outer life of Simon (Kyle Macarthur, making an impressive professional debut), a teenage boy who lives with his mother Charlotte (Kate Baldwin).
Both are trying to negotiate the unpredictable waves and effects of grief left behind by the death of Simon’s father (and Kate’s husband), while they also ponder the presence of mysterious, surly neighbor Jim (Bryce Pinkham). Comics-obsessed Simon wonders if he could be a superhero, which sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? The focus is on Simon: his trying to process personal tragedy, his belief in superheroes as contrasted with the absence of his real superhero (his dad), his getting a girlfriend.
But the show excels every moment the Tony-nominated Baldwin is on stage, which is thankfully a lot. The honeyed, beautiful voice she deployed in the revival of Hello, Dolly! is again on full, vivid display here.
In the book by John Logan (who received the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Drama League awards for Red), there are all kinds of tender moments: mother and son doing the laundry together; Simon being scratchy and rude, and a whole group of flawed humans not being honest with one another. But it is Baldwin’s character who comes to be the play’s fulcrum and focus.
Charlotte is an academic, though we see only books on shelves as a physical manifestation of that. Really, the full-time job we see her doing on stage is dealing with the moody Simon, who Macarthur plays with an open-faced sweetness and anger.
Both mother and son are trapped, with Simon particularly unreachable as, it turns out, he was with his father when he died. Pinkham brings a precise wryness to Jim, the neighbor who is not all he seems and who doesn’t see why he should give up his secrets as he and Charlotte get closer.
The music and lyrics are by Tom Kitt, who received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as two Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Orchestrations for Next to Normal, with which Superhero shares a substantial dramatic shadow. Here again are a group of characters struggling to face the worst life can do, and trying to make the best of what they can make the best of.
The show is best at the precisely observed stuff; Charlotte explaining to Jim the workings of an erratic laundry machine, Jim trying to explain what his strange life is really like, and mother and son trying to work out what place Jim could have for them as the new significant male in their lives.
Having once set out its stall, Superhero stalls itself. The story doesn’t progress from its grief cul-de-sac, which makes for a lot of repetitive songs and scenes, despite the excellent performances of some bizarrely written roles. Two young female characters are mostly rendered quiet and as walk-ons. Thom Sesma plays a grouchy caretaker who just stays grouchy.
There is a lovely twist towards the end, and then a soaringly sung finale by Baldwin, which, despite her song-mastering virtuosity, makes for a mighty strange way to end a musical. It feels like Superhero started out being about a son, and ended up being about a mother. The story feels familiar, the characters feel familiar. There are plot device surprises in Superhero, but the play isn’t surprising.
Most oddly, it doesn’t know what to make of its own title. The final songs amount to a kind of clanging whiplash of: Don’t believe in superheroes, do believe in superheroes, but recognize the real superheroes are all around you. OK, fine, but the end of the musical comes suddenly, like an abrupt ‘see ya’ with a missing 10 minutes and final song hanging out there somewhere but not in front of us on stage.
You may love the audacity of that, the challenge to a spoon-fed happy ending it presents. For this critic, both charmed and baffled, and bowled over by Kate Baldwin, it was suddenly time to leave, a few moments too soon.