There's an awful lot of serious (or would be serious) musical theatre about these days. So it's an absolute joy to be reminded that sometimes musical comedy can be just that. Musical and genuinely, indeed hilariously, funny.
The ever-enterprising All Star Productions now bring, to their performance space above the Olde Rose and Crown pub in Walthamstow, the UK premiere of It's a bird...it's a plane...it's Superman (surely deserving of an award for one of the wackier titles in musical theatre history). The programme note reveals that the original Broadway production in 1966 featured a cast of some 40 people. All Star Productions scale this down to 14 – but with the strongest ensemble I've seen them field I never felt the show needed more people on stage.
The show tells, in a comic book style also reminiscent of the classic 1960s tv version of Batman, of the trials of the strongest man in the world who nevertheless is unable to sort out his love life (and, indeed, turns out to have some other psychological problems). But the plot isn't really the important thing about this show. Rather it's the glorious homage to the whole idea of the comic book hero and to Superman's many other incarnations.
Designers Kate McPhee and Randy Smartnick (who also choreograph and direct respectively) make a brilliant virtue of the limitations of space and budget. Thus by emphasising the comic book character of the piece it makes perfect sense to make all the props out of cardboard – it doesn't feel cheap but rather visually in tune with the material. There's a similarly brilliant device of freezing people (especially Superman himself) in particular poses – as if caught in the individual picture box of the comic book at key moments. Add to this Craig Berry (Superman) and others spot on line in the raised eyebrow, or the shocked face and it's just hilarious. Although there is only one more performance I won't spoil it for any readers by explaining how the production gets round the flying problem, but once again it's simple and very funny. Mention should also be made of the film of Superman's past life – which is far more effective than many very expensive instances of the introduction of technology into live performance.
McPhee's choreography also fits perfectly the character of the show – again there are aspects of it that reminded me of those various 60s and early 70s tv shows like Batman or The Persuaders where our heroes are discovered in nightclubs trying to look as if they are with it. This is not to say that it isn't sharp and impressive but really that again there's a kind of clever tongue in cheek character to it. The finest moment choreographically comes with the brilliant Act One finale: It's Super Nice.
McPhee and her supporting dancers also do an impressive job of the Ling Dance – the place where it's most difficult to get over the limitations of space and budget. If I were being hyper critical a little judicious musical cut here might have been advisable. The Lings, Chinese stereotypes similar to Bert Kwouk's Cato, the Chinese gamblers in Anything Goes or Mrs Meer's henchmen in Thoroughly Modern Millie, clearly do present a problem in today's context and are perhaps a reason why the show doesn't get done more often. Done straight and, I presume, unaltered here is I think the right decision – and in fact the little playful hint towards superior Chinese national power just before their final demise has a clever contemporary resonance.
The cast, as already mentioned, are uniformally spot on. Craig Berry in the title role does an excellent job of standing out even when he's being Clark Kent – square shouldered, square jawed, solemn, just a little bit too good – making his passing disintergration in Act Two even funnier. Matthew Ibbotson as super villian Sedgwick is superbly insane – what might fall into overdoing it in other contexts fits perfectly in this comic book world. The manic cackle, the staring eyes, and the manner in which he finds himself pulled into a dance routine in Act Two's You've Got What I Need all deserve high praise. Michelle LaFortune's Lois does the damsel in distress nicely but is just the tiniest bit outplayed by Sarah Kennedy's Sydney striving to get the upper hand over newspaper columnist and louse boyfriend Max. Kennedy benefits from the fact that in this score the comic romantic numbers are better than the ballads, but also has a line in facial expressions which just lift her performance to another level. Hidden away behind the set Aaron Clingham and his band bring the score to life with verve – I never felt the absence of a bigger band.
But the best thing about this show is the sheer infectious fun of it (not disimilar to Matilda). This is a genuine musical comedy – it's not trying to present a message, it's not trying to be serious, but rather its an affectionate, very funny tribute to the American comic book. Wonderful comic shows are fewer on the ground than they should be – critical opinion doesn't always value them enough, and indeed doesn't always recognise that making something really funny is as hard as breaking the heart. This is one such show that succeeds triumphantly. One performance remains tonight, but is deservedly sold out. If you can find a legal and safe way to get in do so. Otherwise this is an off-West End musical really deserving of further life. I hope it might get it.