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.