Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ ‘It’s a Bird etc’ is something of an oddity. Premiered in the middle of the 1960s and inspired by the Superman comics, this is a camp confection of 50s kitsch which both sends up the original characters and situation, and yet yearns for the time when America, in the form of the Caped Crusader, had a mission to Do Good in the world – and when Evil was a simple matter of mad scientists. It appeared in 1966, at the height of Pop Art which stylistically it borrows a lot from, but also at the time when America was committing to the Vietnam War in spades, the police were about to commit horrifying violence on students at Kent State, and John Wayne and his values were suddenly lumbering dinosaurs in a more complex world. It was intended as a frothy piece of escapism from the anxieties of the period, but audiences would prefer the idealistic alternative of rock musicals such as ‘Hair’. Stranded, it sank.
The British premiere here reveals it at this distance of time as a fascinating period piece, making great play with two of the obsessions of the period – psychiatry and the nuclear threat.
The British premiere here reveals it at this distance of time as a fascinating period piece, making great play with two of the obsessions of the period – psychiatry and the nuclear threat (this is a mere three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we all genuinely thought the world might end at any moment.) The plot is simply told. Mad Scientist Dr Abner Sedgwick, ten times also-ran in the race for a Nobel Prize, is determined to wreak revenge on the world by destroying the figure who represents all that is good and powerful about it, Superman. When Sedgwick discovers the big S. is indestructible, impervious to nuclear melt-down, Sedgwick resorts to psychiatry to destroy Our Hero's sense of self-worth and his beliefs. In parallel is a plot in which Max Mencken (a sly dig at H.L.Mencken, America’s literary idol), columnist on the ‘Daily Planet’, tries to uncover Superman’s identity, while at the same time wooing Lois Lane. Lane, of course, only has eyes for Our Hero. Mencken has a secretary, Sydney Sharp, who is in, but then falls out of, love with him.
Strouse and Adams were never quite in the first league of Broadway, and this show is not their best. That honour must be equally split between ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ and ‘Annie’. Strouse’s music is interestingly asymmetrical and jazzy at times, but doesn’t come up with anything which truly hooks in the mind. Only ‘You’ve got possibilities’ really had any life outside the show, as a short-lived cabaret stalwart. Adams’ lyrics are not exactly sharp – his half-rhymes make for slackness (‘terrible’ and ‘bearable’ – ugh!). The most memorable (‘possibilities’/’ill at ease’) is nicked from Lorenz Hart. The book is funny, but not that funny compared with the contemporary spoof ‘Little Me’ which this company revived so successfully last year. On the down side, there is an interminable brainwashing scene in Act Two and some very unfunny Chinese villains. (‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ did much the same thing a year or two later – it seems that it was acceptable to be racist about the ‘Yellow Peril’ when it ceased to be so about Black people.)
In the mixture of given and made-up characters, the authors seem far more comfortable with their own creations. Sydney in particular gets to belt two show-stoppers, “Oh do you love you?” and the bossa nova “You’ve got possibilities” and Sarah Kennedy seizes both with everything she’s got – which is a lot: looks, comic timing, and a voice that can both purr and belt. It makes you wish there was more of the character, but the size and quality of her musical contributions are out of all proportion with the plot. Matthew Ibbotson, resplendent in owl spectacles and a Harpo Marx wig, similarly has great fun with villain Sedgwick, and brings the house down with his signature number, ‘Revenge’. Paul Harwood as Mencken is all self-satisfied smarm, with a hint of razzle-dazzle when the occasion demands. Craig Berry’s Superman is a bit of an oddity - slightly older and obviously out of condition – but facially spot-on and with a fine baritone voice. It’s not his fault, nor that of Michelle LaFortune as Lois Lane, that having sent up their absurdities, the authors then can’t locate a convincing emotional heart to the show in their relationship.
All Star Productions, which is one of the most talented, interesting and prolific Music Theatre companies in London, puts the best possible gloss on this flawed show. Randy Smartnick’s direction is pacey, sassy and witty, with some splendid visual gags getting the show more laughs than perhaps it deserves. Kate McPhee’s choreography is distinctive while working within the confines of a company whose dance skills are variable. Aaron Clingham, whose baby All Star is, contributes imaginative arrangements for 5-piece band, and vocally the company is well-drilled.
For an undemanding and nostalgic romp, you couldn’t see a better projected production.