When: Through Aug. 19
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire
Info: (847) 634-0200; marriotttheatre.com
Updated: July 30, 2012 6:14AM
Instantly engaging and wholly accessible. Emotionally smart yet wonderfully playful. Young, funny, real and full of heart. And perhaps best of all, simultaneously hip and nerdy.
That really is all you need to know about “Hero,” the beguiling musical by Aaron Thielen and Michael Mahler that received its world premiere Wednesday night at the Marriott Theatre. Yet of course there is more to be said about this irresistible show that should go on to enjoy a long and happy life well beyond Lincolnshire.
For starters, there is Thielen’s neatly crafted story about Hero Batowski (played by Erich Bergen, a formidable actor with a voice and good looks to match). An artistically gifted 28-year-old, Hero has spent the past decade of his life in mourning — somehow blaming himself for being unable to prevent the death of his beloved mother, who died in a car crash. Still living at home with his dad, Al (Don Forsten, in top form), and working in the comic book shop he owns (a place where goofy male losers hang out and talk about superheroes), Hero can’t seem to get hired as a comic book illustrator and lacks the confidence to send out his own original and very personal work.
Happily, Hero has a wonderfully zany cousin and best pal, Kirk (Alex Goodrich, one of the most guileless, gifted and lovably magical comic actors on any stage), who can find happiness in yoga, girls and selling Avon products to the ladies in senior citizen homes. He also happens to have the good luck to bump into Jane Foster (Heidi Kettenring, an actress of great heat and intelligence, who also happens to have the voice of a diva), the high school girlfriend he lost following the death of his mother. Jane has returned home to take a teaching job in the wake of a bad marriage, and some old sparks are nervously rekindled.
Along the way, Kirk unexpectedly takes a shine to Jane’s hilariously uptight teaching colleague, Susan Schmitty (Dara Cameron, very much in the mold of a young Tina Fey), and he does a whiz-bang job of liberating her. And gleefully observing all the human tragi-comedy is Kirk’s precocious, Cupid-like younger brother Nate (Jonah Rawitz, a prodigious talent who suggests a teenage version of Billy Crystal).
Mahler’s songs are a deft mix of Broadway and rock with a clever little rap riff (all under the musical direction of Ryan T. Nelson, with Mahler in the conductor’s booth). More crucially, they are wonderfully conversational, whether in the key of anguish or mischief. For a quirky love song, it doesn’t get better than “A Vampire’s Kiss Means Forever.” For a lyrical love song intertwined with an ode to artistic inspiration, there is “That’s My Kryptonite.” For a blistering soliloquy there is “Your Darkest Place.” And for a gut-wrenching confessional, there is “Powerless.”
David H. Bell, the veteran director-choreographer, uses a revolving stage to ideal effect, but his unique knack for spinning a musical story goes far deeper than mechanics. There are no dance numbers in this show, but everything about it moves seamlessly.
Intriguingly, in his new book, Superman, author Larry Tye suggests that one of the inspirations for that fabled superhero character came directly from the life of co-creator Jerry Siegel, who as a teenager suffered from a profound feeling of powerlessness after his dad died of a heart attack brought on by the robbery of his retail store. And as in “Hero,” the power of art went on to vanquish the pain of life.
Editor’s note: Riverfront Theater announced today that “Spirit of the Dance,” which was scheduled to run July 11-15, has been canceled. Also dropped from the venue’s previously announced schedule are productions of “Rocket Man,” based on the life and music of Elton John, and “Man in the Mirror,” based on the life and music of Michael Jackson. Refunds are available at point of purchase. The next production slated for the 22,000-square-foot tent structure is the U.S. premiere of “La Soiree” (July 18-Aug. 5). Visit RiverfrontTheater.com or ticketmaster.com.