Why superheroes? As films like The Avengers and The Dark Knight have elevated the profiles of comic-book characters, that question has reverberated through American pop culture. In an age when Star Wars takes a back seat to even B-list Marvel icons like Iron Man, it’s hard not to wonder what stories of costumed do-gooders have that other modern mythologies don’t.
If you want an answer, go see Broadway Rose’s production of Up and Away, a musical that mocks superheroes even as it burrows to the core of their unflagging appeal. It’s an imperfect play with a few poorly aimed satirical jabs, but it is also moving and subversive in ways that few superhero films are. By remixing elements from Superman lore (including an alien hero and a journalist love interest), it manages to excavate some of the reasons why superheroes matter to so many.
Like Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, Up and Away shows us a doomed and distant planet from which a baby is sent to Earth. One time jump later, we’re in Farmtown, USA, where the brothers Joe (Paul Wrona) and Jerry Jessup (Colin Stephen Kane) discover a pair of mysterious crimson gloves. When Joe dons them, he can fly and see five seconds into the future (when he touches his head, that is). Invigorated by his newfound abilities, he sets off for Big City, where he becomes a crimefighter named Super Saver.
The first steps of Joe’s journey are the most familiar and the least interesting. In the first act, Up and Away’s creators (Kristin Bair wrote the music and Kevin Hammonds wrote the book and lyrics) evoke narrative conventions without saying much about them. Big City’s supervillains (one of whom has a jack-o’-lantern for a head) are entertainingly silly, but they illuminate the play’s occasional failure to take its commentary beyond the obvious point that, yes, comic-book characters are kind of goofy.
Luckily, Bair and Hammonds have a superpower of their own: the ability to overthrow expectations. After Super Saver is publicly humiliated during an incident that demolishes his easygoing grin and leaves a cruel sneer in its place, Joe devolves into a self-pitying bully who endangers the object of his corrosive affection, journalist Susie Dare (Malia Tippets), and sings, “We’re taught to hold the door/But I barge right through.”
Joe’s downfall sets the stage for an unlikely superhero to ascend: the modest, anxiety-filled Jerry. Unlike Joe, Jerry doesn’t dream of being worshiped—he simply wants to defend the citizens of Big City from his errant brother. That makes Up and Away not just a clash between two characters, but a clash between two visions of American masculinity: Joe’s narcissism and false bravado versus Jerry’s altruism and exposed insecurities (his fears, revealed in the song “Don’t Mind if I Do,” include taxis, crowded streets, and deli meats).
Under the direction of Dan Murphy (who is Broadway Rose’s managing director), Up and Away captures the gravitas of that conflict without sacrificing the play’s inherent playfulness. The superhero costumes are wonderfully laughable (Super Saver’s floppy red getup is about as awe-inspiring as a child’s pajamas) and the production finds cleverly goofy ways to visualize Joe’s powers (like having him roll across the stage on a scooter to simulate flight).
The actors are instrumental in maintaining the play’s balance between soulfulness and silliness, especially Kane. His performance highlights the tenderness of Jerry’s unshakable love for Joe, but he also dexterously pulls off scenes of physical comedy, like a botched costume change in a phone booth that makes you wonder how long it took Clark Kent to work out the kinks in that routine.
Like most superhero tales, Up and Away has a happy ending. Unlike most, it earns its idealism. By contrasting a false superhero with the genuine article, it reminds us that there’s more to the genre than rippling capes and sculpted muscles. The play is partly Joe and Jerry’s origin story, but it does more than chronicle their exploits. It reaffirms that the best superheroes are defined not by their powers, but by their principles.
- Up and Away is at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 S.W. Grant Ave., Tigard, through Feb. 23. Ticket and schedule information here.