HERO The Musical

Book & Concept by Aaron Thielen
Music & Lyrics by Michael Mahler
Directed & Choreographed by David H. Bell
Asolo Repertory Theater
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts/Mertz Theatre
5555 N. Tamiami Tr., Sarasota,941-351-8000
May 2 through June 1, 2014

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Since his mom's auto accident death10 years ago, Hero Batowski has stayed home helping his dad run a Milwaukee comic book shop. Hero also works nights in a bar but, at 28, yearns to publish his comics art. As by his high school girl Jane who left for college and marriage, Hero's been rejected. Caring dad Al wants him to submit, not art imitating famed super heroes, but the graphics Hero keeps in notebooks based on his own life and thoughts. Now divorced, Jane's back to live and teach in town and very much open to resuming their relationship. Helped by her, family and friends, will Hero find his interior superhero and embrace his purpose? From his singing of “My Superhero Life” do we ever doubt he's at “The Start of Something Good”? And will that go as well for his pal Kirk, Jane's pal Susan, and all who regard dad's shop as a family home? In its area premiere for Asolo Rep, the musical takes 2 hours, forty minutes to get  answers telegraphed from initial scenes. 

Pop, rock, even hip hop musical numbers manage to be old fashioned in a traditional, endearing sense as they punctuate Hero's creating his own life rather than imitating any superhero's.  Like his actions, too many of his decision put-offs are unnecessarily repeated, while real fantasies are limited. The show has two endings—one a natural, happy one (after which another appearance by Hero had the opening night audience clapping, thinking it was a curtain call); the last, a sadder but wiser one following a rarely-seen-in-a-family-musical death. Of course, Asolo Rep had a chance to show off its typical super production feats with the semi-final sequence “Time Flies By” that has the cast changing dress as the turntable stage spins through a year's holidays while projections overhead show budding treetops to bright sun to falling leaves to snow. (Quick changes are popular, even if they actually prolong textual outcomes.) 

I've come to think the real hero of this and other Asolo Rep shows is Vic Meyrich, production supervisor with his staff, whose achievements dwarf those of the non-tech creators. HERO the Musical  is stuffed with scenery, especially projections, and props—as in a cute but irrelevant Karaoke number with place indicated by a gigantic hanging sign encased and spelled out in blue neon. Al's shop bursts with myriad real comics. Yet two slackers, his nephew, Hero and friends seem to be the only patrons-- despite available bit players who could double as same occasionally.  Hero is shown supposedly bringing out Jane's beautiful characteristics in a drawing simultaneously projected, yet that sketch makes her look like the teen girlfriend in Zits. With a real if unlikely-for-the-time “Phone Booth” song and structure, Hero has to be coaxed into the box three times to ask Jane for a single get-together and later the number gets reprised. Repetitions add little except familiarization with lyrics that tend after a while to use too many predictable, if not banal, rhymes. Why is there an iteration of Jane and Hero's “Origin Story”? Aren't three parts of “Everybody Knows” enough?

HERO The Musical  is lucky to have charismatic Brian Sears so clearly projecting in song and gesture Hero's personality and feelings. He couldn't do better than gain the love of Laurie Veldheer's supportive Jane, whose voice soars beyond expectations. An engaging subset couple are Matt Mueller as Hero's groovy, flirty cousin Kirk and Dara Cameron's full-of-surprises Susan, Jane's proper fellow teacher. Smultzy Matt's sung, danced, and strummed “A Vampire's Kiss Means Forever” is the show-stopper.  Don Forston is lovable as Al, father surrogate to effective Owen Teague's adolescent smart-tongued escapee from bullying. Amiable Ian Paul Cluster and Norm Boucher play slackers who live in a comics world, encapsulated in Al's shop. Their roles are undeveloped. A few others fill in well as postal worker, doctor, comics publisher, and frequenters of such scenes as bar and dance where they can sing too. (In the Midwest they might be called necessaries, which is “nice” for chorus or extras.)  I'm not sure why these roles couldn't be cast locally or even use FSU/Asolo Conservatory students or alums—except to please originators of HERO that world-premiered in Chicago. David H. Bell does direct all as if the play were written for them.

Under admirable musical direction by Ryan T. Nelson, Michael Mahler heads a small band with a big (sometimes too big) sound and plays his own orchestrations of his music on keyboard. Matt Deitchman adds more of the latter plus guitar. Jed Feder supplies percussion; Trevor Jones, bass; Tahirah Wittington, cello. Dramatic sound is provided for by Kevin Kennedy. Scott Davis' complicated scenic design incorporates Aaron Rhyne's many projections and Jesse Klug's multifaceted lighting. Ana Kuzmanic elevates tee-shirts to a major achievement in costuming and  produces detailed comics-character costumes (from Star Wars to Planet of the Apes) as called for.

Who's the intended audience for HERO The Musical? I think Asolo Rep aims to interest younger than typical local audiences while pleasing  those of any age who like  family-friendly, romantic love, arts-related themes. Incorporating these in a musical adds a bonus. The show seems to me, if its production values are more modest, most likely to succeed after further development  in regional theaters and eventually in community ones. I doubt it will disappoint lovers of comics too if it's honed to the sharpness of a printed issue.

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