BWW Album Review: SUPERHERO's Greatest Power Is Its Big Heart
Let's get this out of the way at the top: historically, superhero concepts and musical theater don't tend to mix well. 1966's It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman closed after just a few months, and we all remember how Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark turned out. The off-Broadway musical Superhero, with a score by Tom Kitt, fares somewhat better. It's not breaking new ground, but it's a pleasant album with a big heart.
Kitt has been a favorite in the musical theater world since his collaboration with Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal, became the rare musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Unfortunately, every score he's done since then has had the unenviable task of trying to live up to an early-career masterpiece, and Superhero isn't going to be that show either. It's an enjoyable score, with that contemporary Broadway-pop sound that's so in vogue right now. The problem lies more with the lyrics. This is Kitt's first show without a lyricist to collaborate with, and, in some moments, it shows: the choice of words, often, goes down the most predictable route, without that extra verve that lets a lyricist's craft really find a show's voice.
The premise of the show is fairly straightforward: Charlotte (Kate Baldwin), a widow, and her teenage son Simon (Kyle MacArthur) struggle with life a couple of years after their husband and father died in a car accident. When the mysterious Jim (Bryce Pinkham) moves into their building, Simon suspects that the comics he loves might be the key to the truth about Jim. There's a sweetness and earnestness to the show from the very beginning, when Simon narrates his own comic in "The Adventures of the Amazing Sea-Mariner." It's Simon's honest, uncynical belief in the idea of heroes that powers the show through. In a pop culture world where even our heroes are getting darker and grittier with each successive reboot, Simon's worldview is more Superman, less Dark Knight.
Although MacArthur carries the role of the earnest young protagonist, the most nuanced performance by far comes from Baldwin. Even on the cast album, with only audio to go by, the depth and range of emotion she gives to Charlotte is palpable. In a move similar to Dear Evan Hansen - another show about a frustrated teenage boy and his mother - she gets the first "real" song of the show, "What's Happening To My Boy?" What could have been a cliché storm instead manages to use a spare, realistic cadence to reflect her constant worries and her attempts to help her son hold it together when she's barely hanging on herself.
The rest of the cast is talented as well, helping the fairly straightforward material find a bit more nuance. Pinkham is perfectly cast as "The Man in 4-B," with a voice that sounds wonderfully heroic but tinged with sadness and ambivalence, particularly in his anti-anthem "It's Not Like in the Movies." Despite some frustratingly flat lyrics, Pinkham gets the point across. Salena Qureshi is underused as Simon's crush Vee, but gets a lovely moment with the duet "If I Only Had One Day."
Ultimately, that seems to be a pattern with the album: it never quite lives up to the potential of the concept or of its talented creatives and cast. There's a kindness and earnestness underlying the whole enterprise that really is lovely to see, but I just wish it had found a few ways to surprise us along the way too.