2:02 AM CDT, June 28, 2012
Michael Mahler, the composer and lyricist of the very promising new musical "Hero" at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, is a young, multitalented Chicago fellow who likes to do a lot of different things in the theater. Fair enough. But if there's one thing that Wednesday night's warm world premiere proved, it's that Mahler needs to be writing Broadway musicals. Such a gift might not imply superhero status, but, like kryptonite, it is not to be squandered. Especially when Broadway is in need of all the heroes it can muster.
Plenty of well-established composers would struggle mightily to come up with such a sticky, hummable, fresh and zesty suite of songs as the score Mahler has created for this modestly scaled, mostly likeable, made-from-scratch story, conceived by, and with a book by, Aaron Thielen.
It's about a thirtyish guy stuck in a bad spot after the death of his mom and working in the classic comic-book shop owned by his dad (the warm Don Forston) in Milwaukee. The guy — whose name is Hero Batowksi and who is played by the square-jawed Erich Bergen — has latent dreams of drawing his own comics, an aspiration rekindled when he runs into Jane (Heidi Kettenring), an old girlfriend who finally helps him get his life together, despite a setback just prior to intermission. Remarkably, this is Mahler's first truly legit, full-length score. If one had to find a comparative, the sound is something like a fusion of "High Fidelity" and "Once." But that's a gross simplification. Every time the band cranks up another number, you find yourself excited to hear what sounds will emerge.
The show already has a boffo opening number ("My Superhero Life"), a powerful emotional closer ("There is Wonder All Around") and a veritable plethora of quirky little specialty numbers like a ditty called "That's My Kryptonite" that has one foot in the soaring melodies of the Swingin' London era and a delicious mambolike syncopation. One could go on. The score is all there, and there are few new musicals that can make such a claim right from Issue One. In many years of new musicals at the Marriott, this is, without question, the best original score the theater ever has birthed. And, as a bonus, they've come up with one that should draw a young audience.
The book is not yet at the same level. But it has great potential. Thielen's book, like most books, works only when it is truthful.
Thielen wants us to care deeply about his leads. Thanks to an unstintingly honest performance from Kettenring that relentlessly drives the show forward (She only has to ask, "Why did you break up with me?" for the theater to fall silent and hang on the answer) and a tightly wound performance from Bergen (perhaps a tad too suave and handsome for the role, but he's an honest actor) that grows on one greatly as the show progresses, we do. But the off-leads, sidekicks of the main romantic characters, played by Dara Cameron and Alex Goodrich with zest but little emotional content, feel like they belong to a very different "Mamma Mia"-like musical, one broader, more formulaic and thus far less interesting. And that one doesn't match the score.
The personas of this show are folks who like to debate how Superman cuts his nails: You know, people who don't get out much. The opportunities for humor — people dressed in "Star Trek" garb and the like — are obvious and certainly amply exploited. But nerds are people too. We need to know what makes their nerd hearts beat. Better yet, "Hero" could reflect the lives of plenty of non-nerds (or seminerds) who find themselves living back with their parents, over some figurative store, after life deals a blow.
The comic pair have genuinely funny moments and a certain sweetness. But you never believe they could exist in quite such a cluelessly out-of-it state. They suck up far too much stage time, including, weirdly, the climax, as does an endless repetition of gags (funny only at first) involving a precocious 12-year-old comic (played by the lively Jonah Rawitz) who mostly lives in the store. Meanwhile, other supporting characters, such as the pair of sad guys who hang out in the racks (Jack Black-style dudes well played by Michael Aaron Lindner and Alex Goldklang), have too little to do. For Thielen, who must do some more work to find his show, it's a matter now of expanding the panels of his musical comic, excising all the easy choices and musical-comedy cliches and showing us a full world in which we can believe. He might also get rid of the show's weird habit of constantly having characters getting up and leaving the scene, along with his false ending in Act Two.
That said, Thielen surely has the beginnings of the crucial broader themes — most usefully, the idea of how comics so often depend on ordinary people transforming into something and how the oft-stolid consumers of the genre might learn from that — but, alas, they get squelched too often by the cheaper stuff. You can see the story he wants to tell; he now needs to find the guts to tell it honestly. Much the same might be said of David H. Bell's production, which is fluidly and efficiently staged throughout, but also needs to excise the obvious tropes of musical comedy in favor of telling the story of these folks in a consistently textured, truthful way. One moment, Bell's storytelling touches you greatly; at another, you find yourself frustrated that it is not probing deeper and falling back on that which we've seen before. "Hero" is hardly the first Broadway-style musical with such a dichotomy in play — there were several last season alone. But this show could and should be different.
Visually, at this juncture, "Hero" is mostly disappointing. The Marriott has created a fabulous set of graphics for the show's promotional materials, but that fusion of comic-book fantasy and reality is nowhere to be seen on Thomas M. Ryan's efficient but prosaic set, which does not carry or convey the feel of a young man who needs to draw his pain away.
But the score does. I'm holding out for more truth, comic books or no. But "Hero" is already worth catching for its music alone.
When: Through Aug. 19
Where: Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $40-$48 at 847-634-0200 or heromusical.com