HERO: A World-Premiere Comic Book Musical ThatÂ's Ready For Its Grown-Ups
The large and well-subscribed Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois, north of Chicago, has a long history of producing new musicals. There has been "Windy City," "Matador," "Phantom Of The Country Palace," "Peggy Sue Got Married," "The Bowery Boys" and last summer's "For The Boys," to name just a few. Opening this past Wednesday, the latest new work in Lake County's circle-in-the-square is "Hero," conceived and written by Aaron Thielen (the theater's Lead Artistic Director) and based somewhat on his childhood in Milwaukee and the neighborhood he grew up in. The show has music and lyrics by Michael Mahler, an actor, musical director, guitarist and keyboardist about town, who has written seven previous musicals and makes quite a mark with this one. The pair has been working on and workshopping the show since early 2009, and the work has paid off. It's a funny, engaging, likeable, tuneful and moving mid-sized musical. It's not perfect, but for a show based on an original idea, it's pretty darn close.
The cast of twelve tells the story of one Hero Batowski, a young man on the cusp of 30 who lives and works with his dad, the owner of a comic book shop. (For a while, I was having flashbacks to "High Fidelity," which this show resembles in its affectionate portrayal of heterosexual geekdom and the man-boys who seem to populate that world.) His two male cousins drop by often, as do a handful of other regular "customers," checking out the latest magazines, arguing over plot minutiae and collectables trivia while bemoaning their lack of girlfriends, etc. This aspect of "Hero" is done exceptionally well, I think. The "inciting incident," if I may revert to the language of dramaturgy, is that Hero's high school girlfriend, Jane, moves back to the neighborhood after a divorce in Denver, and the road to romance is set. Or is it?
Hero, you see, has been in something of a funk since high school, when his mother died quite tragically. And how to move on from that life-defining incident, and become the man, the hero, that he and all of us are meant to be, is the topic of the evening. It's an interesting premise, in a unique milieu, and a pretty remarkable musical score sets it in motion, and plays off the jokes and the emotional high points pretty perfectly. And the Marriott has produced it well, with great sets and lights and costumes (by the team of Thomas M. Ryan, Jesse Klug, Nancy Missimi and Erin Wuorenma), and a lot of time was spent on getting the orchestrations right (by Mahler and musical director Ryan T. Nelson).
Also, there's a creative website (www.heromusical.com) and even a real series of collectable comic books that tell the story of the show. David H. Bell has directed and choreographed with a sure-handed fluidity that is striking in its state-of-the-art clarity. And Robert E. Gilmartin's sound design, like usual, is flawless. But structurally speaking, the show is SOOOO CLOOOOSE to being great. I do hope that the writers can tweak it a little more before releasing it to other theaters or producers, as I assume they want to do, and as they should.
As Hero, Erich Bergen, a former star of tours of "Jersey Boys," is quite likeable, and sings beautifully. He also looks pretty good--too good, actually, to be entirely believable as a geek who lives with his dad, has no dates and no real friends. He does look like a hero, believe me, but too much so, especially in the show's early moments. And if he's really as depressed over his mother's death 12 years earlier as the script indicates, someone should have sent him to a psychiatrist years ago. Certainly Jane (the delightful if disappointing Heidi Kettenring--was she just in poor voice on opening night?) should suggest the same as the show progresses. But all ends well--not before several obstacles get in the way of true love. (I was worried that the stakes weren't high enough, but they do grow.)
The secondary love couple in this somewhat traditional musical comedy, Hero's cousin, Kirk, and Jane's co-worker, Susan, are actually more interesting as people than are Hero and Jane, and that's a problem (see what happens in the show's coda if you don't agree with me). And the actors portraying them, Alex Goodrich and Dara Cameron, are hilarious, detailed, quirky and wonderful, only adding to the confusion of diverting us from the focus of the show's plot and theme.
As Hero's dad, Al, Don Forston is warm, and he hits all the right aspects of a widower unable to move his beloved son out of a funk and into adulthood, not into merely a "like father, like son" scenario. It's a linchpin performance. As Hero's younger nephew, Nate, Jonah Rawitz was sly and wise beyond his character's years on Wednesday night, and played a key role in the success of the show's climax.
The show is about these six characters, and yet, in the cast of twelve, there are the understudies for these roles also, playing all the other parts and appearing as a somewhat generic back-up chorus for several numbers which benefit musically from having this support. Hero understudy Jameson Cooper is a comic book executive and a priest, Jane understudy Summer Naomi Smart briefly plays a doctor, and Susan understudy Kelley Abell is a postal worker. The understudies for Al and Kirk, Michael Aaron Lindner and Alex Goldklang, have fleshed out characters as Kyle and Ted (comic book fanatics), and young Zach Keller (who does play Nate at some performances) appeared briefly as a comic book customer.
It should be noted that Smart was originally slated to appear as the character of Adele, Hero's late mother, but apparently that character was removed just recently. And the song "Better In Here," for four of the men, was added very late as well, and a reprise of the song "Your Darkest Place" became a reprise of "My Superhero Life" instead. It's good to know that even after the original program information went to press, the show was being worked on, as a musical comedy like this one is a complicated piece of moving machinery, from Ryan's impressive turntable set to the variations in style struck by Nelson's five-piece band (conducted by composer Mahler, no less).
The songs for the show are mostly in an indie-rock vibe, laced with liberal amounts of musical comedy structure and pop accessibility. The lyrics are full of comic book references, clever and insightful. The strongest number may be the opener, "My Superhero Life," which Bergen and the whole cast knocked out of the ballpark on opening night. Goodrich was hilarious in "Wing Man," and Kettenring sympathetic in "Lower Your Shield." But Goodrich's song, "A Vampire's Kiss Means Forever," sung in tandem with Bergen and Kettenring's "Origin Story," overshadowed the primary love couple's growth toward each other with a hilarious (though extraneous) comic seduction of Cameron's brilliant embodiment of Susan. Both couples get good duets in Act II, however, with the comic "By Our Powers Combined" preceeding the serious, and liftable, "That's My Krytonite."
If this show includes a bit too much sexual humor and dark psychology to attract teenage fanboys and their parents to its performances, its plot device of Hero growing as both a comic book artist and as a lover will be appealing to many young adults. And its ending, the soaring and upbeat "There Is Wonder All Around," followed by reprises of the show's first two songs in the final moments, had many older folk in the audience audibly weeping. There is a lot of emotional truth going on in this production, even if some of the show, to me, felt out of balance, oddly paced or not quite as realistic as the scrupulous properties design of Sally Weiss would have us believe it to be (people come and go so quickly there!). But it is also a quite funny show, and those adults who like pop culture (and those who appreciate technical theater people who do their homework) will certainly have a good time.
I enjoyed "Hero" very much, and its creators and the theatre which took the show on should be very proud of the show and the production. Many of the songs are quite catchy, and both the story and the jokes land successfully. The show can grow from very good to great with just a little more tweaking of the script, after Thielen can step back and view it once again with fresh eyes. Perhaps a song or two could be strengthened or lengthened as well. But don't let these quibbles keep you from going and seeing a fresh and detailed world come to life, full of musical comedy characters which we may have with us for many years, in auditions, regional theaters and more. By the time its last page is turned, "Hero" very well may conquer the world with its transformative message of seeing what is right in front of you, meeting your particular challenges with the resources at hand, and moving on into the destiny of your tomorrow with your new-found family at your side. I'm smiling through a tear right now.
The Marriott Theatre presents the world premiere of "Hero," written by Aaron Thielen with music and lyrics by Michael Mahler, running through August 19, 2012, directed and choreographed by eleven-time Jeff Award-winner David H. Bell. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays, with tickets ranging from $40-$48. Call the Marriott box office at 847.634.0200 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.
Photo Credit: Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre