Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Marriott's Original Musical 'Hero' Is Very Good and Rather Admirable, If Not Quite Super -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere musical by
Aaron Thielen and Michael Mahler
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire
Thru August 19

The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is a very-well established in-the-round venue with a huge subscription base comprised largely, from the looks of things, of patrons over the age of 75. It also, I presume, does considerable business accommodating group outings from nearby retirement and nursing homes.

Thanks to its vast audience base, the theater has been able to program early regional renditions of recent (and/or long-running) Broadway hits, such as The Producers, Hairspray and Les Miserables.

In recent years, Marriott has also commissioned and/or self-created new musicals such as The Bowery Boys, Once Upon a Time in New Jersey and For The Boys. While I admire their gumption in doing so, these originals--or their reviews, word of mouth, etc.--have never prompted me to attend as have the recent hits and the venue's real bread & butter: classic musicals.

My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Damn Yankees, 42nd Street, Evita and Funny Girl are just some of the shows I've seen there--along with the first three cited above--almost all to terrific enjoyment.

Given all this, although I was intrigued upon hearing about it, I wasn't sure I cared enough to see Hero, a world premiere musical produced in-house, until the Tribune's Chris Jones gave it a positive review, as did a family friend who saw it.

I'm glad I did, even if it wasn't as fantastic as any of the all-time great musicals that are the Marriott's forte. But beyond being an admirable attempt by the Marriott to do something new, with a show whose young-skewing conceit and language are not entirely congruent with the preponderant clientele, Hero is genuinely entertaining throughout.

While I heard decidedly mixed reactions from older audience members--some seemed to really like it, though one man offered his wife $20 if they could leave at intermission--more telling was that the 5:00pm Sunday crowd was the smallest I've ever seen at the Marriott Theatre. And if part of the motive behind Hero was to bring younger fans to the theater, achieving this mission wasn't readily apparent as I seemed to be the youngest person there, by at least 30 years for the most part.

Despite its name and use of comic book imagery, Hero isn't actually about a superhero or anyone who aims to be one, which I think may disappoint any teens or twenty-somethings who are enticed to check it out.

Instead, the fictional, Milwaukee-based story--conceived and written by Marriott's lead artistic director, Aaron Thielen--is about a 28-year-old man named Hero (played by Erich Bergen) who lives with his father (Don Forston) and works at his comic book store while harboring dreams of becoming an illustrator within the genre.

Two cousins, a kooky older one (Alex Goodrich) who serves as Hero's "wing man," and a wise-cracking 12-year-old (Jonah Rawitz) also factor in, as does an ex-girlfriend, appealingly embodied by Marriott stalwart Heidi Kettenring.

The show's music and lyrics were crafted by Michael Mahler, who has done other impressive work as a composer/lyricist and an actor. Most of his songs here are overtly-thematic--including "My Superhero Life," "Phone Booth," "By Our Powers Combined" and "Powerless"--but for the most part come off as witty without being overly hokey.

But though they moved the story along well while being melodic and somewhat stylistically diverse, only a couple tunes sounded like they really might resonate on their own. I don't mean this as a harsh criticism for a musical score--unlike most I hear--that I was experiencing for the first time, but perhaps more strikingly so within a venue where most shows are packed with classics, the songs of Hero felt appreciably lesser than those by Bernstein, Sondheim, Lerner & Loewe, Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc. But then, so does most everything else.

Storywise as well, Hero engaged much more than it ever dragged, but a bit oddly, Kettenring's Jane was more overtly heroic than the title character, who faced adversity with aplomb but not much verve. The romantic aspect was sweet if a bit slight and trite, and comic relief by cousin Kirk and two store regulars couldn't help but to harken--with much less zest--to Jack Black's turn in High Fidelity. A secondary romance between Kirk and a repressed friend of Jane's named Susan (Dara Cameron) offered some laughs, but was largely predictable.

Still, while I didn't enjoy Hero quite as much as I did Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, it was better--in some cases considerably--than several other recent new musicals with original scores, such as Ghost, Bring It On, 9 to 5, Little House on the Prairie, Shrek and even (IMHO) the Tony-winning Memphis.

So Thielen, Mahler and the entire Marriott cast & crew have much to be proud of, even if Hero's story and songbook may need to go back to the drawing board before any Broadway aspirations seem warranted (though there's no reason why they couldn't be).

The in-the-round limitations of the Marriott Theatre, well overcome on the classics by imaginative directors (including David H. Bell, who helms Hero), seem a bit constraining here. And while I'm not looking for spandex tights, a bit more animated action and songs of greater ebullience could add to the appeal as this show evolves.

Also, especially given the sparse crowd on Sunday, the Marriott would do well to offer some ticket discounts, on its own or through HotTix or Goldstar, which it seemingly never does.

Though tickets in the $40-$55 range (depending on performance) are low for a mostly Equity show compared to top end Broadway or Loop prices, they're about twice what I typically pay for most theater I see.

I was willing to spend a bit more to explore a well-reviewed world premiere, but if the Marriott really wants to reach fan boys in addition to its graying fan base--as well as anyone unsure about taking a chance on something new--it really should make tickets available in the $25 range, particularly for undersold performances. They might even go so far to offer free tickets to anyone under 25 years of age.

Otherwise I suspect this admirable--if still evolving--new show won't reach its target audience: new fans for a first-class theater that is expanding its repertoire, likely with some concern about who will be filling its seats 10 years down the road.

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