A charming score and a sincere premise buoy “Hero,” a new musical set in a Milwaukee comicbook store that explores the distance between superheroic aspirations and everyday reality. Developed by and premiering at the Marriott Theater outside of Chicago, “Hero” still needs work in balancing its tonal variety and pumping up its plotline, but it feels emotionally true to the times, a relatively rare quality in a musical and one that, together with the breakout work of composer Michael Mahler, makes this fresh show especially deserving of lightning-speed rewrites and relaunch.
The title is actually the name of the protagonist, Hero Batowski (Erich Bergen), whose superhero-loving father Al (Don Forston) started the store decades earlier and has managed to keep the small business afloat. After the sudden death of his mother a decade earlier, aspiring illustrator Hero put aside plans to leave Milwaukee and stayed put, still living at home in his late 20s and feeling futureless.
Plot proper starts with the return to town of his high school sweetheart Jane (Heidi Kettenring) and the quick reignition of their romance. But despite high-quality performances, the leads both do battle with the predictability and occasionally dour nature of Aaron Theilen’s book. Hero’s emotional vulnerability might make him likable, and given the economy, a twentysomething living at home is highly relatable. But there are times when you wonder whether instead of a Spider-Man-like bug bite, what he could really use is antidepressants.
The couple’s generic romance would be unbearable if Thielen didn’t pour on the comedy with two sidekicks, Hero’s cousin and willing “wing man” Kirk (a game Alex Goodrich, channeling Kramer from “Seinfeld”), and Jane’s ultra-uptight co-worker Susan (Dara Cameron). Despite the stock nature of the characters, the actors make the unlikely duo work. They enliven the proceedings whenever it’s needed and own a couple of the show’s highlights, including their act two opener, “By Our Powers Combined.”
If none of this sounds like it’s related to comics — and if the story sounds mundane — there’s composer Mahler to the rescue. His songs don’t just give believable voice to the characters’ emotions, but he also makes the comicbook metaphor matter. Terrific songs like “My Superhero Life,” “Lower Your Shield,” and love song “That’s My Kryptonite” all bring to life the conflict that drives the show, not one between characters but between the world of comicbook fantasy, where good guys win and bad events can be undone by superpowers, and the real-life facts of family obligations, regrets, loneliness, stunted career ambitions, insecurities and mortality.
Director David H. Bell clearly understands that the show alternates between two worlds and manages to find the right reality for the comic antics of Kirk and Susan and the very earthbound Hero and Susan. Al and his young nephew Nate (Jonah Rawitz, another example of how they seem to grow young talents on trees in Chicago) bridge the gap.
The Marriott is an in-the-round venue, which brings you close to the characters but limits the design possibilities, so there are significant opportunities to bring the world of the store itself to greater life going forward if, as it should, “Hero” has an afterlife.