BWW Review: UP AND AWAY Sweetly Skewers Superheroes at CLO Cabaret
As a lifelong Pittsburgher, one of my favorite guilty pleasure films is notorious flop Inspector Gadget, which starred Matthew Broderick as not one but TWO cyborgs careening through the Steel City. It was silly, it broke the fourth wall constantly, and at its best moments it managed to have a level of comedic momentum that could hit both kids and adults without pandering to either. So from me (if from literally nobody else on earth), comparing new original musical Up and Away to Inspector Gadget is high praise- and it's certainly better than the two superhero musicals I saw featured in the New York Musical Festival. In fact, if It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman was this good, people would actually stage the damn thing.
With a tip of the hat to both retro comic heroes Superman and Lil' Abner, our epic saga tells the tale of overgrown farmboy Joe Jessup (Michael Greer), who is strapping and brave but none too bright. His timid hick brother Jerry (John Wascavaige) is the brains of the group, which isn't saying much. When a chance encounter with a UFO grants Joe superpowers, he heads to the big city, with Jerry tagging along reluctantly to watch out for his big brother. Chaos ensues, leading to encounters with supervillains, eccentric billionaires, the radio industry and a very pissed-off nun.
It's difficult to discuss the actors playing the Jessup brothers separately, or debate which one is the lead role- I still hold that it should have been a dual final bow. As Jerry, John Wascavaige gets most of the better songs, and his strong voice goes well as a pleasant contrast to the physical comedy that cowardly Jerry carries. It's a wacky show, so calling Jerry the straight man of the duo is a relative term. Michael Greer's Joe is the perfect foil, built like a superhero but possessing a light, breezy singing voice that suits his man-child of a character. Additionally, his thick-as-a-brick super-farmboy gets some of the best clowning since Jim Varney's "Ernest" persona- in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the classic family comedy series provided some inspiration for this show.
Greer and Wascavaige play almost no roles other than the Jessup brothers (though both do quick cameos as other characters- blink and you'll miss them), while the three-member ensemble gamely plays everyone else. Christine Laitta rakes in the laughs as several of the show's broader characters, from a gutsy, Roseanne-esque farmer, to a drunken secretary, to a Pittsburghese mob moll. The other two tracks, usually played by CLO regulars ERIKA STRASBURG and Quinn Patrick Shannon, were played at my performance by all-purpose understudies Julianne Avolio and Waseem Alzer. Since everyone knows Strasburg and Shannon deliver, it was an interesting and welcome treat to see two less-familiar faces in the cast instead. Avolio applies just the right amount of period-style spunk and grit to "lady reporter" Susie Dare, who is almost but not quite Lois Lane; she also plays the verklempt nun, perpetually besieged by the forces of evil. Given that Susie is a slightly more serious role than many of the others, seeing Avolio cut loose as the nun and a few other roles was a fun look at the versatility she has. Filling in as everyone else- most notably a succession of supervillians, a media mogul who is not J. Jonah Jameson but could be, and a fey billionaire who is not Alan Cumming but could be- Waseem Alzer carries the show on his back for extended periods.
Finally, as a writer and composer myself, I have nothing but praise for the ingenuity and polish of this new show with book and lyrics by Kevin Hammonds and music by Kristin Bair. With five actors, two pianos, a drum and a unit set, they have crafted a world that is at once comic-strip broad and full of authentic heart, smart enough for adults but clean enough for kids to enjoy together. If it's a little too small and slight for Broadway, who cares? There's a big, bright world of smaller theatre Off-Broadway and beyond, and within ten years, mark my words: theatres around the country will be putting up, up, Up and Away in their black-boxes. Given the way superhero sci-fi has become a mass culture mainstay, this "little show that could" may yet become as much of a perennial as Little Shop of Horrors has been since the sci-fi boom of the Eighties.