Off Broadway Reviews
at The New York Musical Festival
Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and their compatriots have little to fear from the titular superhero of Ultimate Man!, the new NYMF entry at the Pearl Theatre. Unlike his more fascinating and complicated competition, Ultimate Man isn't so much a cipher as he is a nonentity: a tall, obviously in-shape golden boy who runs around wearing tights and a cape, rescuing the local girl in distress and defeating the local bad guy when he has time, but not living, professing, or even questioning the ideals with which he's confronted.
What Charles Abbott (who also directed) and Jane Edith Wilson deliver in their book is instead an arid fish-out-of-water story that finds Ultimate Man (Michael Glavan), his archnemesis Rex Ringer (Douglas Ladnier), and the girl who comes between them, Cathy Cookie (Sidney Fisher), yanked out of the pages of their comic book series and set loose in our world. The mechanics by which this occurs are not worth getting into and totally beside the point, except insofar as they relate to the secondary story of Ultimate Man's artist, Joe Barino III (Alan Gillespie) fighting his own battles against the witchlike publisher named Buffy Lamarr (Gayle Samuels) who wants to take over his job, and trying to kindle his own partnership with her smart, lovely, and infinitely nicer sister, Beth (Joyah Love Spangler).
So much more comically and romantically charged are the Joe-Beth-Buffy scenes (due, in enormous part, to Samuels's gleefully evil spin on Buffy and the sensitive sexiness Spangler brings to Beth in spades) that you may find yourself wishing they'd dispensed with the other nonsense altogether and just written an animation-oriented love story à la the stage version of Woman of the Year. Glavan, Fisher, and particularly Ladnier give excruciating, over-the-top performances that don't endear you to their pen-and-ink existence, and are so hampered by hokey writing that you're almost actively encouraged to loathe them all. (Rex, the embodiment of evil, does little but spout Republican and Donald Trump campaign slogans, if that gives you an idea of the level of sophistication here.)
Though the songs are not terrible, the music (by Alastair William King) is pedantic, sounding like plunk-heavy variations on children's piano exercises, the lyrics (by King, Wilson, and Paul Gambaccini) indifferent to proper scanning or original thought, and the choreography (by Will Taylor) bland and repetitive. There are a few bright flashes during the second act (among them: Cathy's intermittently pretty ballad "Halfway Round the Moon") and the finale, "Be a Hero"), but otherwise the score is unmemorable at best and numbing at worst. (The sing-along with the limp Ultimate Man! TV show theme is easily the evening's nadir.) Except for the crazy costumes (by Travis Chinick) even the physical production isn't that much fun. If the writers want to be inspired by a Golden Age, right now they'd be better served by Broadway's than by Marvel's or D.C.'s.