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Super-hero musical a perfect fit for Michael Mahler at Marriott

Erich Bergen stars as title character 'Hero' Marriott Theatre  Lincolnshire.

Erich Bergen stars as the title character in "Hero" at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

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◆ In previews; opens June 27 and runs through Aug. 19

◆ Marriott Theatre,
10 Marriott Dr.,

◆ Tickets, $40-$48

◆ (847) 634-0200;

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Michael Mahler (composer, lyricist, actor, musical director and guitar-playing member of The Lincoln Squares, a local rock band), fondly remembers that as a kid, whenever he visited his grandparents, they would hand him a cardboard box full of the newest editions of his favorite comic books — “Spider-Man,” “Batman,” “Superman,” and what he now describes as “more normal ones, too.”

Meanwhile, at home, he couldn’t escape the siren sounds of music and theater. Both his parents were musicians who sang in the church choir and on local stages, and his mom works with the Stages Theatre Company, a children’s theater operation in Hopkins, Minnesota.

Mahler himself, a very boyish-looking 30, began performing while still in grade school, and he now has a sister who teaches theater, a brother who is a performer and another brother who is studying musical theater.

So, if ever someone were destined to grow up to write musicals (he earned a degree in theater at Northwestern University and, from his freshman year on, penned about 50 songs for the school’s famous Waa-Mu Shows), Mahler was it. In fact, he has created two terrific ones already: “How Can You Run With a Shell On Your Back?” a beguiling family show, written with the similarly multi-talented Alan Schmuckler, and produced by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in 2007 (it’s about six students stuck in detention, and the eccentric substitute teacher who triggers their imagination by having them act out Aesop’s fables); and “Knute Rockne, All-American” (created with director David Bell, and given its world premiere in 2008 at Theatre at the Center in Muncie, Ind.).

Now comes the world premiere of “Hero” (with a book by Aaron Thielen, who shares Mahler’s love of comics and superheroes, and modeled his story on the comic book shop he frequented in his hometown, Milwaukee). The show opens June 27 at the Marriott Theatre in a production directed and choreographed by Bell, and with a cast that includes Erich Bergen (of the “Jersey Boys” national tour) in the title role, Heidi Kettenring as Hero’s former girlfriend, Alex Goodrich as his charming cousin, and Dara Cameron (who also happens to be Mahler’s real-life wife) as a former schoolmate who is now an intensely focused teacher.

The musical spins the story of Hero Batowski, “a young artist living anything but a superhero life.” Still upended by a traumatic event that occurred during his senior year of high school, Hero is living at home with his dad, who runs a comic book shop in Milwaukee. But his life gradually begins to turn around thanks to a little help from his friends, rather than any Spidey-like intervention.

“Aaron [Thielen] showed me an early draft of the story in 2009 when I was performing at the Marriott in ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’,” said Mahler. “He knew my music, and thought it would be a good fit for the youthful energy of his story. Since then we’ve gotten great development support from the Marriott, as well as from a couple of weeks of working with a terrific student cast, and director Jess McLeod, at Northwestern University’s American Music Theatre Project. That’s where David [Bell] first came to see the show.”

“The story is set in 2008,” said Mahler, who has written both the music and lyrics, “so it has a bit of an alternative rock sound — and maybe more of an electric guitar and drums vibe than you might usually hear at the Marriott. But I’m a traditional musical theater guy, too, so the whole key to the storytelling is in the songs.”

As for his approach to writing those songs, it all grows out of his work as an actor.

“I put myself into the mindset of the character who will be singing, so the words and music generally come at the same time,” said Mahler. “I figure out what the right sound and language of that person would be, and what the song needs to do. It’s really easier for me to write a show song than a standard rock song for my band, because for the band you just sit in a room and try to pick an idea out of the air.”

Mahler started studying piano as a kid, and then at some point his dad, who plays the guitar, taught him “Stairway to Heaven.” From that point on he taught myself.

“Making a new musical work right is especially tricky when the material is totally original,” Mahler admitted. “It’s much easier to adapt something that exists, and that people are already familiar with, even if the story isn’t great. The challenge with something brand new is to tell a complete story — one that you can sustain, and that drives the audience forward with nothing extraneous.”

“We toyed with the idea of using some kind of special effects in the show,” said Mahler. “But mostly this story is actor-driven, even if things are imagined through a comic book lens. There are no gimmicks. It’s a story about finding a way to bring your fantasies into your real life. It’s sort of the anti-’Spider-Man’ musical in that it’s less about spectacle and more about people.”

Ask David Bell about what makes Mahler’s work so special and he doesn’t hesitate for a second.

“There is such a clarity in his songwriting,” Bell said. “He understands true rhymes, true meter. And he has a unique knack for melody that I’d compare to Alan Menken’s [“Newsies,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Shop of Horrors”]. You hear one of his tunes once, and it just worms its way into your consciousness so you can’t shake it.”

Bell believes “Hero” has commercial potential, too.

“In a way, Michael is an aberration because he believes in the musical form, and while his storytelling searches for layers of complexity it also has such a refreshing lack of cynicism. There’s just incredible heart in his work; he is unafraid to enter our emotions through the front door. And it all seems effortless, though he sweats over everything.”

Mahler admits that at the moment, he “can barely see past the next day’s rehearsal.” But along with Alan Schmuckler and several other collaborators he has been working on an original musical comedy web series, “Boyfred,” for Sony Pictures/TV, periodically flying out to L.A. to pitch it to the networks.

Meanwhile, he has a list of roles he dreams about playing (Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” and J. Pierrepont Finch in “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”). And he already is kicking around an idea for a new musical inspired by Joe Hill, the early 20th century labor activist and Wobblie that could “blend folk music with the drive and edge of a contemporary sound.”

A very different sort of “superhero.”

NOTE: Charles Riffenburg, an illustrator and graphic and web designer of Grab Bag Comics, has created an interactive website for “Hero.” Enjoy a visit at

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