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Review - It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman: High Flying, Adored

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The shorthand response for why the original production of It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman only managed to eke out a three and a half month run on Broadway has traditionally been that the show opened during a newspaper strike.

And while there were most likely other factors involved, the lack of printed dailies, which were then the ticket-buying public's primary source of up-to-date rialto info, certainly made it difficult for director/producer Harold Prince and his publicity crew to get the point across that this was not a family entertainment meant to appeal to adolescent boys or adults hankering for a bit of childhood nostalgia, but rather a hip and deceptively smart evening of campy vaudeville that capitalized on the 60s trend of seeing Americana through retro-mod shades.

Even its lengthy title, necessitated by DC Comics' insistence that the name of the musical could not be simply Superman, was part of a 60s trend among plays and musicals (The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever...). Another stipulation that limited the involvement of characters from the source material forced first-time bookwriters David Newman and Robert Benton to create new foes for the Man of Steel.

At that time the pair was best known for their Esquire article, "The New Sentimentality," which challenged the acceptance of traditional values in favor of exploring individual feelings. No doubt inspired by their findings, they devised a plot whereby a ten time Nobel Prize losing scientist, Dr. Abner Sedgwick, hurt from seeing his contributions to society so frequently overshadowed, decides to take his revenge on the world by destroying Superman. Knowing the crime fighter is physically indestructible, he attacks him psychologically by having the hero of Metropolis consider for the first time that he has the power to help prevent the conditions that breed criminal activity, but instead prefers to allow crime to exist because he enjoys the adulation and celebrity he receives by catching crooks. ("'Superman.' Did you choose that name yourself?") Dr. Sedgwick is joined in his scheme by the Daily Planet's swinging bachelor gossip columnist, Max Mencken, a spewer of innuendo and self-serving patriotism who is jealous of Superman's status as the top guy in town, and a troupe of Chinese acrobats known as The Flying Lings, who have gone broke because Metropolitans no longer pay to see their act when they can watch Superman fly for free. (Chinese acrobats, as any frequent viewer of The Ed Sullivan Show will tell you, were a significant part of 1960s pop culture.)

On the romantic side, Newman and Benton present a Lois Lane who, in love with the ideal Superman but sick of his indifference to commitment, starts dating a nice, normal guy who, despite his flaws, is openly devoted to her, emotionally available for a long-term relationship and, in the end, turns out to be, arguably, more heroic than Superman. In turn, Max's secretary, Sydney, tired of her handsome and connected boss' lack of attention, starts flirting with fixer-upper Clark Kent, who is fascinated with the notion that he doesn't have to be a perfect Superman to attract this cute and spunky sparkplug.

Add some jokes referencing Tennessee Williams and Enrico Fermi, a plot twist involving Communist spies, insanely catchy music by Charles Strouse that mixes 60s pop, midnight jazz and brassy showtune and crazily funny lyrics by Lee Adams that frequently find the most perfectly awful rhymes ("You know you're really quite a dish. / You're what a guy might call delish... / You're packed as sold as a knish.") and you've got a truly unexpected brand of musical comedy.

There have been several revised versions of It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman through the years, including an attempt to replace the vaudevillian camp of the show with a firmer plot and another that, responding to complains that The Flying Lings were a racist caricature of Chinese people, replaced them with a French acrobatic troupe. Fortunately, the current Encores! concert version of the show, with the script only slightly edited, embraces its loosely-plotted showbiz roots and retains the Lings, though in an interpretation that I doubt anyone would find objectionable.

From John Lee Beatty's colorful skyline setting, styled somewhere between Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Rob Berman conducts the 27-piece onstage orchestra playing Eddie Sauter's exciting, detailed and period-evoking orchestrations; some of the best ever penned for Broadway. Sauter had a long career as a jazz arranger and entered musical theatre late in life, but his short stay also included outstanding work for The Apple Tree and 1776.

Director John Rando, one of the best musical comedy directors around, could have probably used a little more time than the brief rehearsal period Equity allows for concert productions to firm up the stylized humor, but nevertheless his terrific ensemble delivers an evening's worth of knockout performances while choreographer Joshua Bergasse's dancers quote enough go-go moves to fill up a season's worth of Hullabaloo.

In the title role, Ed Watts' square-jawed handsomeness, fine physique and virile baritone are capped with a comic naiveté well-suited for the role. As Lois Lane, Jenny Powers brings to mind mod vocalists like Petula Clark and Lulu, sporting costume designer Paul Tazewell's Carnaby Street-inspired mini-dresses, whereas Alli Mauzey, who, as Sydney, snazzily belts the score's popular jazz rumba, "You've Got Possibilities" appears cut out of Eydie Gorme's Las Vegasy cloth.

Will Swenson's snarkily sleazy Max is so faux-charming he can sneer through a toothy-white grin while crooning a fond farewell to his nemesis ("Here's mud in your x-ray eye.") and David Pittu's scene-stealing Dr. Sedgwick perfectly balances over-the-top villainy with smart explorations of the scripts most satirical edges. As his unsuspecting assistant, Jim, Adam Monley's nerdy maturity makes for interesting competition for Lois Lane's heart.

As far as The Flying Lings are concerned, such care seems to be taken to make their portrayal non-offensive that their realism seems a bit out of place in the cartoon world of the production. (The lyrics of their "Everything's Easy When You Know How " are scrapped.) But the intense warrior-like skills demonstrated by Craig Henningsen, Suo Liu, Jason Ng and Scott Weber do indeed fly spectacularly, particularly when they're engaged in choreographEd Battle during the climatic 11 o'clock number, "Pow! Bam! Zonk!"

Does Superman fly? Not with cables or cords, he doesn't. But this week at City Center the musical that bears his name soars with the kind of infectious fun that Broadway musical comedy does best.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Jenny Powers and Edward Watts; Center: Alli Mauzey and Will Swenson; Bottom: David Pittu and Will Swenson.

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"Honorary degrees are given generally to people whose SAT scores were too low to get them into schools the regular way."

-- Neil Simon

The grosses are out for the week ending 3/24/2013 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: ANNIE (9.2%), HANDS ON A HARDBODY (8.5%), MAMMA MIA! (6.7%), THE LION KING (2.5%), ROCK OF AGES (1.5%), NEWSIES(0.3%),

Down for the week was: VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (-16.1%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-9.7%), BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (-5.9%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (-5.5%), ANN (-4.7%), CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (-3.9%), ONCE (-3.0%), CHICAGO (-2.2%), JERSEY BOYS (-2.1%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-1.8%), WICKED (-1.7%), KINKY BOOTS (-1.0%), LUCKY GUY (-1.0%), MATILDA (-0.2%), CINDERELLA (-0.2%),

Cultural elitists, rejoice! Christopher Durang's new comedy is a start-to-finish laugh riot. His funniest play since the days of Sister Mary Ignatius and Beyond Therapy is also graced with a stellar cast in a crackerjack production mounted by Nicholas Martin. Smart, silly, literate and farcical, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is the kind of fun night out every Broadway season needs.

As the title suggests, much of the play is inspired by the classics of Anton Chekhov. While you don't have to be familiar with Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull to enjoy the hilarity, getting the parallels to the work of the Russian dramatist certainly adds to the fun.

David Korins' unit set depicts the well-worn farmhouse in Bucks County where the buttoned-up, reserved Vanya (deliciously underplaying David Hyde Pierce) lives with his adopted sister Sonia (a jittery, comically adorable Kristine Nielsen). The pair, neither of whom ever had any lasting romantic relationship, have lived there their entire lives, taking care of their ailing parents, who are now deceased, while their sister Masha (cluelessly narcissistic Sigourney Weaver), a wealthy star of trashy Hollywood blockbusters and five-time divorcee, supports them financially. Their only regular company is their housekeeper, Cassandra (outrageously silly Shalita Grant) who is given to going into trances and making seemingly random pronouncements of doom.

Their relatively quiet existence, where the highlight of the day might be an argument as to whether or not their handful of cherry trees constitutes an orchard, is interrupted by a visit from Masha and her latest boy toy, Spike, a much younger aspiring actor who thrives on the attention he gets whenever the opportunity arises to strip down to his skivvies. While the character is essentially an attractive dumb blonde, Durang and actor Billy Magnussen do an excellent job of keeping him quite aware of the power his physique grants him in his profession. Rounding out the company is Genevieve Angelson, sweet and sincere as Nina, the neighbor girl with an initial thing for Spike ("He's so attractive, except for his personality, of course.") but who develops a more significant friendship with Vanya through their mutually artistic souls.

Alert Chekhovians would probably sense from the start that Masha will have an important announcement to make to her siblings, but the off-beat twist is that she's also arranged for the foursome to attend a costume party at a neighboring home, and while the celeb does her best to insure that she'll be the belle of the ball, Sonia inadvertently threatens to steal her show.

As expected, Durang's text is supersized with highbrow wisecracks ("If everyone took antidepressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about.") but there is also a good deal of sweet pathos, particularly in watching how beautifully Nielsen's Sonia reinvents herself from a lonely recluse to an effervescently funny charmer. Her performance of a second act monologue where she takes an unexpected phone call from a potential suitor is one of the most heart-tugging scenes you're apt to see in many a Broadway season.

Pierce counters with an explosively funny rant, set off by Spike's obliviously rude behavior, where he mourns how individualized technology has robbed our society of communal experiences like licking stamps and watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Though Vanya quickly ponders if 'adventures' was maybe too strong a word for that show, audiences are sure to find Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike to be an uproarious communal adventure.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson: Top: Sigourney Weaver, Genevieve Angelson and David Hyde Pierce; Bottom: Billy Magnussen and Kristine Nielsen.

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There are certainly more graceful ways to end the first act of a solo play than to have the character tell the audience that she has to go to the bathroom, but I suppose Ann's playwright/performer Holland Taylor isn't trying to sell us on Texas Governor's Ann Richards' gracefulness.

After all, despite her deceptive grandmotherly elegance, a look replicated beautifully by costume designer Julie Weiss and wig designer Paul Huntley, this angelic-looking woman in white sported a dry sense of humor that, at least according to Taylor's text, loved a good joke about bestiality or incest.

Richards first gained national attention when, as the State Treasurer of Texas, she delivered the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention; only the second woman to do so. Though the brief clip of her speech that opens the play does not include her famous quip about George H.W. Bush being born with a silver foot in his mouth, it concludes with her well-intentioned, but inaccurate observation that Ginger Roger did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. (A more accurate statement would be that Hermes Pan did everything Astaire did, including the part about doing it backwards and in high heels.)

When Taylor finally takes the stage she's an impressively detailed image of the governor, nailing the accent, speech pattern and authoritative bearing. Would that her play, assembled from the subject's own words along with remembrances from others, was as impressive.

After opening with the former governor addressing students at a fictional Texas college, the bulk of the evening is set in her state capital office, where, joined only by the recorded voice of Julie White as her off-stage secretary, she fields a parade of phone calls and discusses an assortment of issues while trying to sort out the details of an upcoming family fishing trip.

The greatest potential for tension comes from her decision on whether or not to grant a death row inmate a stay of execution, but, like most issues in the play, it's brought up, discussed, and then ditched for the next one. Her defense of her vetoing of a bill that would allow for concealed weapons, a decision that may have led to her unsuccessful reelection bid, is undercut with a cheap joke about women never being able to find anything in their purses. She has a friendly chat with President Clinton, an eye-rolling conversation with an inexperience staffer who thought the governor would enjoy taking the day off on July 4th and even finds a moment in her perpetual multi-tasking to sew a loose section of fringe back onto the state flag.

With direction by Benjamin Endsley Klein, Ann is usually quite entertaining, but it has the same appeal as watching a stand-up comic performing her most famous routines. There is very little drama to fill the two acts and you might start feeling that the play could just end at any time without leaving you hanging on any plot point. In the end it all seems rather nice and inoffensive, and I seriously doubt the governor would ever describe herself that way.

Photo of Holland Taylor by Ave Bonar.

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