Superheroes haven’t had an easy time of it in musicals. It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman opened in 1966 to critical praise but public indifference, and then there was that little show about Spider-Man some seasons back. Add to this unlucky list Superhero at Second Stage, which at least invents its own superheroes rather than sullying the reputations of beloved ones. Further, it’s beautifully produced, assembled by experienced hands (book, John Logan; music and lyrics, Tom Kitt), and possessing several good songs. The trouble is, Superhero isn’t so much written as programmed.
It’s also uncomfortably similar to Dear Evan Hansen, with elements of The Prom, Be More Chill, and Mean Girls; what is it these days with singing, alienated teens? Here it’s Simon (Kyle McArthur), the withdrawn high schooler whose dad, something of a superhero himself (hint: the song “My Dad the Superhero”), died a violent death two years ago. Simon has retreated into himself ever since, avoiding socializing at school and busying himself by writing and drawing an original comic, Sea Mariner. His mom, Charlotte (Kate Baldwin), an assistant professor of English at a nearby university (where we are is a mystery; the skyline on Beowulf Boritt’s attractive set suggests New York, but the text is mum), dithers at a long-overdue textbook and anguishes over getting her son back in motion. Simon, meantime, lusts after ecology-minded classmate Vee (Salena Qureshi) and fixates on Jim (Bryce Pinkham), the quiet upstairs neighbor whom he thinks he’s witnessed doing some strange things, like disappearing in a flash of light.
So: Family crisis, superhero obsession, unrequited love, global warming, the need to move on. It’s like Logan and Kitts worked off a PowerPoint presentation on writing a modern musical, with ingredients from Kitts’s own Next to Normal and big sung self-discovery moments. Most of the first act works: Jason Moore’s direction has several clever touches, like five Simon-like bodies in red hoodies racing across the stage to symbolize how ungraspable he is, while Charlotte persuasively sings, “I Need to Find My Way (Back to You).” An awkward first date between her and Jim contains some of Logan’s best writing, and Tal Yarden’s projections help us visualize both Simon’s superheroes and what’s going on in his tortured mind.
Kitt and Michael Starobin did the orchestrations, which are huge for off-Broadway, and at least half the songs are enjoyable, even if they don’t always spring naturally out of the text. Kitts’s lyrics get the job done, and if the rhymes tend toward April-grateful, that’s better than a lot of the us-love stuff that’s out there right now.
But some wild plot things happen in Act II, and by the time Charlotte is assuring Simon “If I can’t be a superhero/ I’ll still fight for you,” we’re past caring. The whole act is almost through-sung until a crucial, manipulative dialogue scene that works too hard to wring emotions out of us. We tend to forget about supporting characters, like Vic (the always-welcome Thom Sesma), the gruff landlord who’s also a closet comic book fan; Dwayne (Jake Levy), Vee’s sulky, menacing ex-boyfriend; or Rachel (Julia Abueva), her best friend who exists to supply best-friend responses. The outcome of the central conflict—will Simon ever process the tragic event that shut him down?—is never much in doubt, and McArthur, while a competent Simon, does nothing that will surprise you. Pinkham’s Jim is one long mumble, except when he bursts into song, in that generic tenor that seems designed to win ovations for long high notes. If the production has a superhero, it’s Kate Baldwin: she lives deep in Charlotte’s skin, carefully indicating this struggling mom’s sorrow, frustration, and tentative efforts at forcing herself back to life, and she sings like a dream.
There are plot inconsistencies—Charlotte, having assured Simon she has no intention of flirting with Jim, instantly does just that, and the first event Simon witnesses that sets him suspecting Jim of superpowers, involving a fire hydrant, is too ridiculous to reveal. The talent of the people at work on Superhero is obvious, and Sarah Laux’s costumes and Jen Schriever’s expressive lighting are also likable, if Brian Ronan’s eardrum-blasting sound design is not. But the damn thing doesn’t work, and you’ll leave asking, Can we declare a moratorium on superhero musicals, before Batman: The Musical or Black Panther: The Musical assaults us?
Superhero plays through March 31 at Second Stage Theater (305 W. 43rd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and at 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; matinees are 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays; there is also a matinee Wednesday, March 27. For tickets and information, visit 2st.com.