In the comic books, heroes can be invincible, invulnerable and fly. But in real life, dark forces, both petty and small, drag many heroes down. “Hero: The Musical” the latest Asolo Rep production, centers on the struggles of one mere mortal to let his creativity and love life take flight.
Hero Batowksi (Brian Sears) is the hero protagonist. He works at his father’s old-school comic book store in Milwaukee. In addition to selling cartoons, he creates them. But this prolific, 28-year-old cartoonist keeps his drawings to himself. Hero’s still cut off from dreams, both romantic and creative, after a drunk driver killed his mother right after his high school graduation. But his self-imposed, 10-year isolation ends when Jane (Laurie Veldheer), his high school sweetheart, walks back into his life. Hero’s love life gets back on track — and there’s more good news. On the strength of his sketch books, DC Comics’ Vertigo division signs him up.
Everything’s looking up and nothing could possibly go wrong. But, as any comic book fan knows, that’s when something inevitably does …
Aaron Thielen conceived and wrote the script for this inventive, witty, good-hearted musical; Michael Mahler wrote the pop-rock music and lyrics. Their musical is so good, it makes other musicals look bad. The writing is economical; the scene construction is tight; the songs always serve the story.
Said songs are strong from beginning to end. (And in their celebration of geek culture, remind me of Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.”) Songs such as “My Superhero Life” make you smile. Songs such as “That’s My Kryptonite” and “There is Wonder All Around” might make the more weepy theatergoers reach for their handkerchiefs. Strong? Heck. The songs are super-strong — but never at the expense of the story. Musical Director Ryan T. Nelson makes each song flow out of one character’s experience.
And director and choreographer David H. Bell keeps the action flowing in a character-centered production that never treats the actors as human props.
Sears (a charismatic actor and a dead ringer for Mark Hamill) makes Hero come alive, with no obnoxious superiority in the good times — and no pity parties in his dark nights of his soul. He’s the center of the musical, but not in a self-centered way. In true comic book (and anime) tradition, Hero is part of a team. Like Jor-El before him, Hero’s father, Al (Don Forston), is also a father figure to most of his customers.
Veldheer’s Jane is sweet, rock-solid and sympathetic — no mere sidekick, but a super-powered heroine.
The aptly named Kirk (Matt Mueller) is Hero’s romantic wingman. He falls for Susan (Dara Cameron), a wallflower with a secret identity of Party Girl. Hero’s teenaged nephew, Nate (Owen Teague), is cocky on the outside, wounded on the inside. Call him The Kid — what else? Ian Paul Custer and Norm Boucher play two regular comic book store customers who depend on Al’s fatherly advice. For brevity’s sake, let’s call them Fanboy No. 1 and Fanboy No. 2. All of these characters form a team — and a family. Hero’s joys and sorrows aren’t his alone.
Strong performers doing strong material — it adds up to a character-centered musical with brains, heart and humor. What more could you need? Nothing. But the musical gives you more, anyway.
The action unfolds in Scott Davis’ brilliant revolving set that nicely anchors you in space. You see Hero walk from the comic book store to his house, to the bar where he has a second job. The spatial specificity creates a sense of reality. A rear projection screen behind it all offers glimpses of changing weather — and Hero’s sketches. The combination is cinematic — and not in a gimmicky way. Somehow, this musical manages to do what you’d think only a movie could.
Along the way, it touches both the heart and mind.
“Hero: The Musical” wrestles with the ultimate questions of nerd life. Are comic book artists and their fans withdrawing from real life? Are their visions of heroes self-indulgent — or do they inspire us to be heroes in the day-to-day nitty-gritty where heroism actually counts?
As far as this musical is concerned, the answer is clear.
The fans need the artists to keep going. The artists need their fans to keep on creating. We could be heroes, and not just for one day.
But not alone.
IF YOU GO
“Hero: The Musical” runs through June 1, at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org for more information.