So buoyantly lightweight that it practically floats up, up and away, Dallas Theater Center’s extensively and inventively revamped “revisal” of “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman!” may be just what it takes to elevate the reputation of a semi-obscure Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical heretofore best known as a cult-fave Broadway flop. A second-chance staging on the Great White Way may be problematical — DC Comics reportedly maintains a tight grip on its rights to the Superman mythos — but this new and improved iteration of the show conceivably could become a regional theater staple.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: When originally produced on Broadway in 1966 — after composer Strouse and lyricist Adams collaborated on “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Golden Boy” but before the pair scored with “Applause” — “Superman” failed to connect with audiences, despite generally fine reviews, and closed after 129 performances.
At the time, some observers blamed the short run on “cape-lash” — it premiered shortly after the debut of the phenomenally popular “Batman” TV series, to which it was unfavorably compared — while others criticized the unwieldy shape and uneven tone of the book by David Newman and Robert Benton (who went on to write the films “Bonnie and Clyde” and, ironically, “Superman: The Movie”). An excruciating campy production of the musical that aired in 1975 on ABC — never released on homevideo, but currently available on YouTube — did nothing to dispel the impression that this “Superman” was a super dud.
Credit Dallas Theater Center managing director Kevin Moriarty for taking a cue from the show’s most memorable song — the zestfully seductive “You’ve Got Possibilities” — and seeking approval from Adams and Strouse for a full-blown revival. The DTC production features a pleasingly eclectic mix of songs from the original Broadway production — many of them rearranged and re-orchestrated by Eugene Gwozdz — along with a few tunes that were deleted during the pre-Broadway tour, and brand-new numbers by Adams and Strouse. Just as important, the DTC production also benefits from the contribution of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a playwright who has written for both HBO (“Big Love”) and Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, Fantastic Four), and who did a near-total rewrite of the Newman-Benton book, and reassigned some of the original songs to different characters.
The reconstituted “Superman” at DTC strikes a savvy balance of retro and contemporary elements, showcasing a multicultural cast in a nostalgically rendered yesterday. Unlike the 1966 version, which placed Superman in a then-contemporary world of pop-art visuals and trendy psychoanalysis, the revival returns to Superman’s comicbook roots, taking place in a Depression-era Metropolis of 1939 where the Man of Steel is temporarily undone not by cunning psychological warfare but synthetically produced Red Kryptonite. (Introduction of the latter — as opposed to the more commonplace green Kryptonite — is just one indication of Aguirre-Sacasa’s familiarity with Supermanly minutiae. Fanboys will be appreciative.)
Two disposable opening scenes — fleeting views of Krypton and Smallville — provide all the exposition necessary. With that out of the way, director Moriarty and his well-cast players are free to cavort in set designer Beowulf Boritt’s colorfully stylized Metropolis, where Clark Kent (Matt Cavenaugh) carries a torch for co-worker Lois Lane (Zakiya Young), who, like almost everyone else in town, is madly in love with Superman (Cavenaugh).
One of the few non-admirers of the Man of the Steel: Maxwell Menken, a vainglorious billionaire who’s jealous of Superman’s popularity — and determined to use the city’s worst arch-criminals in a plot to eliminate his super-duper rival. In the 1966 production, Menken was an equally egocentric newspaper columnist, stylishly played by the Tony-nominated Jack Cassidy. Patrick Cassidy, the late actor’s son, takes over the reconceived role at DTC, where he steals every scene that isn’t bolted to the floor with spectacularly snide villainy and impressively energetic dance moves.
As Superman/Clark Kent, Cavenaugh acts and sings with appropriate sincerity and engaging charisma, while Young is impressively appealing — and, at times, highly reminiscent of Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday” — as the career-driven but lovelorn Lois. (She’s at her best while rendering an effective ballad, “A Woman Alone,” that was written for, but dropped from, the 1966 Broadway production.) Jennifer Powers is suitably sexy and slinky as Jennifer Powers, a gossip reporter who tries to expose Superman (and undress Clark Kent), and Cara Statham-Serber is amusingly meek and frustrated as Marilyn Nessbit, Max’s hopelessly smitten underling.
Costumer Jennifer Capri enhances the show’s comicbook-influenced visual scheme with, among other apt touches, an electric blue suit for Clark Kent. And ZFX deftly handles the wirework that enables the audience to believe a man can fly (with the aid of wires, of course).
The not-so-super super villains in Max’s employ are campy caricatures played, with mixed results, for broad laughs. There’s something mildly annoying about the breathless comings-and-goings of newsboys during repetitious transitional sequences. And the final scenes — including an all-too-obvious promise of a possible sequel, reminiscent of many comicbook-inspired movies — are insufficiently soaring.
Overall, however, “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman!” is an enjoyably lively trifle that could click with audiences of all ages, and likely will serve as fresh encouragement for those who yearn to excavate ill-fated efforts from Broadway seasons past.