Actor Steve Custer is not afraid to fly.
Custer, of Bethesda, showed up at his last audition wearing a “Clark Kent jacket” atop a Superman tee.
“They definitely knew what I was getting at,” the self-professed comic book nut said of the Being Revived creative team, who were eager to fill roles for their first full-fledged musical, the obscure superhero-meets-showtunes gem, “It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman!”
The power play worked. Custer landed the leading role.
Since then, the costume hasn’t changed much. Like, at all.
In the show, opening Friday at the Performing Arts Factory on South Jefferson Street, Custer’s Superman is a bit of a sad sack, sans cape, with just a Clark Kent jacket to doff, that iconic S festooned on a fitted Fruit of the Loom and — instead of “up, up and away” — an ability to leap off stage in a single bound.
“For those who are maybe gearing up for the new Superman film, [‘Man of Steel’], this summer,” Custer laughed, “this is definitely not going to be like that.”
Written by David Newman and featuring music by Charles Strouse (“Annie”), “It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman!” opened on Broadway in 1966, coinciding with television and Adam West’s groovy and glib take on Batman. While reviews were decent, and the show paved the way for future star Linda Lavin, who sang the memorable “You’ve Got Possibilities,” Superman’s flight on the Great White Way was cut short nonetheless, lasting only 129 performances.
Director David Norman, who launched Being Revived last year for the sole purpose of sharing lesser-known, long-forgotten and/or underappreciated theater works with his Frederick audience, first encountered the novelty during an Open Door Theatre Company staging in New York City. He and his partner, a “huge comic book nerd,” sought out the production, and though Norman is hardly a fan of comics (“I ... put up with them, I guess you could say,’ he laughs), he swiftly fell in love with the soaring, and satirical, parody.
Thanks to some mutual colleagues, Norman would ultimately direct the following production at Open Door — the criminally undervalued “Whoop-Up!” — but the solitary musical adventure of the Man of Steel continued to stick with him.
When it came time for him to select a cornerstone title for Being Revived, following the company’s testing of the waters with last season’s “Completely Inappropriate” revue, Norman looked no further than “up in the sky.”
“I chose it, mainly, for that one word: Superman,” Norman said.
Arguably the world’s first superhero, the DC Comics emissary created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1932 has long since achieved iconic status, and Norman is hoping that will help usher audiences to their seats.
“If curiosity gets them in the door, great,” he said.
Once there, he noted, they’re in for a surprise.
“One of the interesting things about the show is that ... there is no Jimmy Olsen. There’s no Lex Luther. Kryptonite is never mentioned. Perry White has all of four lines. Superman and Lois Lane are the only two characters brought over from the comic books. It’s an entirely new story. Which is one of the [challenges] with this show. It would be very easy to go campy with it. [So it becomes about] finding a way ... to make it as funny as we possibly can, while never, ever making fun of the source material. We’re playing it straight out, but yet with a bit of a wink. I will always go for the laugh, but never at the expense of the source material.”
Though there exists no one right way to stage a Superman musical — a NYC production courtesy of Encores! earlier this month boasted a full orchestra, full costumes and “enough set to keep people interested,” said Norman — Being Revived has taken the “less is more” approach to the hero.
“There’s no set, and there’s only a suggestion of costume,” Norman explained. “What we’re doing is presenting the narrative. ... I know there will be some who say, ‘Where are the tights and the cape?’ But it’s about the material.”
And though prevalent in the script, there’s “technically” no flying in the Being Revived production. No winches or pulleys or invisible wires. So how to create the illusion?
“He runs off stage and everyone points and says, ‘Oh, there he goes!’” Norman laughed. “Our tongue is planted very firmly in our cheek. And, I know, for audiences, it will not be what they’re expecting — but it will be just as exciting and funny.”
Even the man who would be Superman was, at first, taken aback. After winning the gig, comics aficionado Custer dug out his research materials from the long boxes — “Superman: Secret Origin” by Geoff Johnns and “Superman: Earth One” by J. Michael Straczynski — and rewatched the Christopher Reeve films.
And then he showed up for rehearsal.
“I did all of my homework, and then when I got on stage and they handed me the script, it was clear that they were doing a period piece... [one] that might not always be too politically correct.”
This, Custer realized, would be far less “World’s Finest,” and much more ’50s cartoon Superman, he of baritone bravado and trips to the telephone booth.
“I usually sing tenor, but this Superman sings at a bass/baritone level,” Custer said. “So when I first spoke to David, I said, ‘I have to apologize — I can’t sing like a man.”
Soon after, Norman furnished the original Broadway cast recording for Custer’s benefit.
“Up until then I couldn’t find [it] anywhere,” said Custer. “The only material I could find was an old, made-for-television movie from the 1970s. It was awful, but it [also] gave me no inclination of what the singing was going to be like.”
And the singing, stressed Norman, is the key. It’s the show’s true super power — the X-ray and heat vision and ice breath and nigh invulnerability all rolled into one.
“I always said, ‘It has to start with the singing,’” Norman noted of his cast, which includes familiar Frederick thespians Karen Paone, DC Cathro and Steve Steele, among others. “‘If they can sing it, they can play it.’”
Yes, this is not your father’s Superman. Or your brother’s. Or that cat’s stuck up in the tree. But Being Revived is sure looking forward to it.
“Here’s the funny thing about the show,” said Norman. “Superman is brought down — not by weapons, not by Kryptonite — but by psychology. It’s one of those, ‘I can’t believe we’re getting away with this’ things. Of course, by the end, he’s back to what he’s supposed to be, but — this show is so ’60s. And it is firmly set there. And we’re not trying to hide the fact that it’s dated.”
“But by the end of the overture, I think the audience will understand and just go along for the ride.”