REVIEWS: “Alice By Heart” and “Superhero”
Two hotly-anticipated new musicals opened Off-Broadway recently: Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s “Alice By Heart” at MCC Theater, and Tom Kitt and Joshua Logan’s “Superhero” at Second Stage Theater. Below I take a look at each:
“Alice By Heart” (New Musical, MCC Theater): Lewis Carroll’s fantastical 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” has captivated imaginations since its first publication, spawning countless adaptions for stage and screen, including the 1980 musical “Alice in Concert” at the Public Theater and the 2009 musical “Wonderland: A New Alice” on Broadway. Carroll’s magic proves too irresistible to avoid putting on stage, albeit never quite successfully, and it’s not hard to understand why. The book itself is an absurd tale that twists logic and plays with narrative form. Musicals are hard enough to construct as it is. Still, credit goes to “Spring Awakening” collaborators Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (lyrics and book) for their long-gestating stab at dramatizing the “Alice” story alongside co-bookwriter and director Jessie Nelson (“Waitress”).
“Alice By Heart” is not an adaption of the work so much as an original story that uses “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” as inspiration for its central character, Alice Spencer (Molly Gordon), to navigate while escaping the terror of The London Blitz during World War II, experiencing first love, and coping with first grief. The story finds Alice and a rag-tag group of never-quite-introduced strangers hiding in the London Underground; there, she encounters her childhood pal and crush, Alfred Hallam (Colton Ryan), who is sick with tuberculosis. To soothe him, flee their reality, and buy more precious time, she recounts the tales of her favorite book from memory (hence, “by heart”). Each member of the outstanding 12 person ensemble cast becomes multiple characters from the book (Mad Hatter, White Rabbit, Queen of Hearts, Jabberwocky etc.) as the story comes to life on stage as Alice remembers it.
Or at least that’s the idea. In practice, it’s an incoherent jumble that is gorgeously sung and energetically performed (impressive choreography by Rick and Jeff Kuperman), but otherwise incomprehensible. Lyrics are not poetry, and when they are, audience comprehension can too easily get left out of the equation. I have no doubt that if I spent an “afternoon” with the script or had coffee with Mr. Sater and Ms. Nelson, we could discuss the layers of meaning behind their words; but live performance is not a coffee date. It exists in a finite time and space, requiring enough definition and clarity for an audience to get engaged and follow along. Despite many fine performances—and highly imaginative and evocative sets (Edward Pierce), costumes (Paloma Young), and lighting (Bradley King)—there is not much of a legible show to hold on to here. It was recently reported that Mr. Sheik and Mr. Sater are at work on six other new musicals; despite the fatal density of “Alice By Heart”, I look forward to seeing their next works. Opened February 26th; runs through April 7th at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space. Tickets.
“Superhero” (New Musical, Second Stage Theater): a musical about a single-parented awkward boy who escapes into another world while trying to win a girl’s affection. No, I’m not talking about “Dear Evan Hansen”. And no, I’m not talking about “Be More Chill”. In “Superhero”, a new musical by composer/lyricist Tom Kitt (“Next to Norma”, “If/Then”) and writer Joshua Logan (“Red”, “Skyfall”), we get this familiar formula once again, though in an unfortunately underdeveloped story that is occasionally charming but suffers in an inert production that is confused in tone.
Simon (Kyle McArthur, in his professional debut), and his mother, Charlotte (Kate Baldwin, “Hello, Dolly!”), have moved into an apartment following the death of his father in an accident. Two years have passed, and the two seem to be getting along just fine, but mom is no substitute for dad when it comes to Simon’s comic book obsession. He draws them, imagining new stories and using them as inspiration for his own desire to “save the girl”—classmate Vee (Salena Qureshi), who actually doesn’t need much saving. Things jump into action once Simon suspects their neighbor, a laid off bus driver named Jim (Bryce Pinkham, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”), is a superhero in disguise, and coaxes his mom into flirting with Jim to find out.
It turns out (spoiler alert), Jim IS a superhero in disguise, but only Simon knows. That’s act one. And it is as underwhelming as you might suspect. Act two teems with a bevy of incomplete plot points for its under-sketched characters. Vic the ornery super (Thom Sesma) is sharp with Simon in two scenes, hands him a vintage comic book, then basically disappears never to be heard from again. Vee and her friend Rachel (Julia Abueva) plan a school event to brainstorm ideas to save the planet, but we don’t see much them of them, either. Dwayne (Jake Levy), Vee’s ex, has about three lines. So much about “Superhero” is undercooked, including the lack of the literal villain necessary to any superhero story. The most interesting scenes follow the budding romance between Charlotte and Jim, but the musical is really about Charlotte and Simon, as their climactic (though entirely unearned) final songs would suggest. The tension between these two competing plotlines is never resolved, and the show ends abruptly without denouement.
A boy with a superhero obsession mourning his father and building a future with his mother is a lovely idea for a musical; this one is just too cluttered and ill-focused on paper and on stage. Director Jason Moore (“The Cher Show”) is unable to wrangle a single style from several competing factions, and Beowulf Boritt’s needlessly complicated and underutilized set of increasingly tilted, framed plateaus is a fitting metaphor for the entire enterprise, which finds itself on shaky ground and in need of its own superhero to save the day. Ms. Baldwin radiates warmth and energy, but unfortunately, not much else in this musical does. Opened February 28th; runs through March 31st at the Tony Kiser Theater at Second Stage Theater. Tickets.