Sunday, March 24, 2013

‘Superman,’ ‘Donnybrook,’ and ‘Happy Birthday': Splendid Revivals Brighten A Lackluster Season

While we are waiting for the damp wood of the 2012-2013 theater season to catch fire, I would like to send a shout-out to a trio of delightful shows from the past that are currently on tap in revivals.

The first of these, It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman!, unfortunately ends tonight at City Center after a brief but glorious run as part of the Encores! series of semi-staged presentations of seldom-seen musicals.

An Encores! show is not always a sure bet; sometimes there is a very good reason why a musical has pretty much disappeared since it originally saw the light of day.  But when everything comes together—as has happened with this mounting of Superman—the result is a feast for the famished musical theater-goer.

If you are reading this, it is likely you are aware of the praise that has been heaped upon Superman, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams.  I can only add my own voice to the glowing reviews, along with the hope that this show will find a post-Encores! life elsewhere, possibly at an Off Broadway house.  One sign of hope:  Sitting two rows in front of me was Hal Prince, who had directed the original.  Might he be thinking of making another go of it? 

The decade of the 1960s was a busy time for the team of Strouse and Adams, with Bye Bye Birdie (1960) and Golden Boy (1964), both of which had successful runs (607 and 568 performances, respectively), as well as the problematic All American (1962, 80 performances) and It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman! (1966, 129 performances).

Superman was generally well received by the critics at the time, and it garnered Tony nominations for three of its cast members, but it simply did not catch on.

Others who are better at 20-20 hindsight than I have speculated that the show, based as it was on a comic book, was not clear as to whether its target audience was children or grownups.  However, Broadway had already seen a successful production of Li’l Abner a decade earlier, and  Annie and Spider-Man:  Turn Off The Dark would not have trouble finding audiences down the road. So, Superman's lack of success remains a mystery.

As it happens, I saw the 1966 Superman and enjoyed it immensely.  The original cast recording has been a favorite ever since—due in no small part to the wonderful and intricate orchestrations by Eddie Sauter.  Sauter had been the musical arranger for Benny Goodman and also orchestrated a number of Broadway shows, including another of my favorites, The Apple Tree, which appeared the same year as Superman

Whatever else you get from an Encores! event, you are guaranteed a full orchestra, playing the original orchestrations.  And with Superman, the orchestra, under the direction of Rob Berman, has never sounded better. 

But the joys to be found in this production did not begin and end with the orchestra.  Everything came together like magic.  The cast was uniformly strong, starting with Edward Watts and Jenny Powers in the lead roles of Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and Will Swenson and David Pittu as the chief villains.  Mr. Pittu was marvelous in the role of the resentful ten-time Nobel prize-losing physicist, and when he and Mr. Swenson performed their duet, “You’ve Got What I Need,” in front of a curtain of shimmering streamers, it was pure comic bliss.  I don’t remember seeing such a grand pas de deux between two men since Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa tripped the light fantastic in Hairspray

Kudos to director John Rando, and, indeed, to everyone involved.  Everything from the bright comic book set design (John Lee Beatty is identified as the scenic consultant), to the lighting (Ken Billington), to the costumes (Paul Tazewell), to the just-right ‘60s-style choreography (Joshua Bergasse) was spot-on perfection.

Encores! shows are produced with very limited rehearsal time and a very tight budget.  One expects to see cast members clutching and referring to their scripts, and, even occasionally dropping a lyric or missing a note.  I saw Superman at its very first public performance, an invited dress rehearsal, and there was not a script to be seen or miscue to be heard.  Indeed, at the very end, Mr. Watts celebrated on behalf of the entire cast by grabbing a half dozen copies of the script and tossing them into the air in a well-earned gesture of triumph.

This is one Encores! show that deserves an encore.


Even if you missed Superman during its short run, you still have time to catch two other shows from the past that are having impressive revivals.

Dee-lightful is the word for The Irish Rep’s presentation of the 1961 Johnny Burke musical, Donnybrook!, which, like Superman, has lived on via its original cast recording.  Thanks to director Charlotte Moore;  to James Noone, a miracle worker of a set designer, who has done amazing things with the postage stamp of a stage; and to solid performances by a talented ensemble of actors.  Donnybrook! is a charmer of a show.

Finally, I’d like to call attention to another wonderful revival, Happy Birthday, written by Anita Loos and originally seen on Broadway in 1946.  TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, is offering up a first-rate production of this romantic comedy about a demure librarian (a splendid Mary Bacon) who lets down her hair and finds the man of her dreams at the friendliest bar this side of Cheers.  

As is true of Superman and Donnybrook, the production of Happy Birthday (now on view at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre) represents a labor of love by all involved—from the great set design, to the period music, to the direction, to every one of the performances.  Hats off to TACT, which last year gave us a top-notch revival of Neil Simon’s Lost In Yonkers, for putting together another winner.   

So here’s a question for all of you Broadway nabobs out there.  If Encores! and The Irish Rep and TACT can manage to put on first-class shows on shoestring budgets, why on earth has this been such a lackluster season on the Great White Way???  Just wondering.

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