It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman continues at the Leicester Square Theatre, London until 21 February.
Star rating: 4 stars ****
Superman, the hero of the comic strip begun in 1939, has entertained adults and children in many guises for decades. In between that first appearance and the release of the Superman film starring Christopher Reeve in 1979 came this Broadway musical It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman in 1966, produced and directed by Harold Prince with a score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. This musical version is now making a belated West End appearance in a transfer from Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre Pub in Walthamstow.
With a multi-talented cast, imaginative direction and inventive choreography, this zany show turns those original black and white cartoon sketches into a technicolor city laced with toe-tapping musical numbers that go off like champagne corks. It’s well worth the wait.
On the Leicester Square Theatre stage that has the dimensions of a letterbox rather than a traditional proscenium arch, a set of brightly coloured panels with protruding gadgets stand alongside a computer switchboard of lethal height capable of blowing up City Hall.
On the central rear platform Superman, Craig Barry, blows up his cape in a make-believe lift-off, giving the audience a tongue-in-cheek grin. Barry cuts a dignified Reagan-esque figure and sings powerfully. It’s a tricky role as the story depends on him convincing himself and us that he doesn’t know who he is, Superman or news paper clerk, Clark Kent. This is all part of the plan of the mad scientist, Dr Sedgwick, to strip him of his unearthly power.
Matthew Ibbotson, as Sedgwick, dressed up in an expanded costume with fuzzy wig and large glasses, has a solo spot in ‘Revenge’, a number in which he denounces those Nobel prize winners who’ve robbed him of his fame. He also has a song and dance vaudeville routine with the smooth-talking Max Mencken (Paul Harwood), a devious newpaper columnist, who gives an excellent performance singing his two solos effortlessly.
Sarah Kennedy is Sydney, the quizzical secretary eyeing up Kent’s drab profile in the show-stopper ‘You’ve Got Possibilities’. She’s brillaint too in puncturing Max’s surface charm in ‘Ooh, Do You Love You?’, a chirpy but tricky number she pulls off to perfection.
Michelle LaFortune, as journalist Lois Lane, brings her somewhat colourless numbers to life, her duet ‘We Don’t Matter At All’, with Jim Morgan (Charlie Vose), her boyfriend, being the most endearing.
Kate McPhee’s choreography has the company on their toes in both ensemble and solos requiring acrobatic skills. Aaron Clingham, the musical director and arranger with his six-piece band, cleverly conveys the flavour of the show’s big band original orchestrations.
I like the many humorous touches the director Randy Smartnick brings to his direction, none more so than in Superman’s solo ‘The Strongest Man in the World’, where pieces of the stage set inadvertently come away in his hands as he concludes: “don’t they know the strongest man can cry?”
This was a show born in an era of send-ups, the cartoon strip Modesty Blaise, the Bond paradies like Our Man Flint and television’s Batman come to mind. The fine score wears its years lightly, whether echoing the beat of the time or older musical traditions. It’s also a very funny show reflected in the programme note by composer Charles Strouse who writes that it was the most fun to write of all his musicals. Children on half term will love it, likewise their parents.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – Actor Craig Berry talks It’s a Bird… Its a Plane… It’s Superman