Chicago Theater Review: HERO (Marriott Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on June 28, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Hero, a brand new musical at the Marriott Theatre, has enough warmth and humor to provide a pleasant evening of light summer entertainment, but the work of composer/lyricist Michael Mahler outshines that of the problematic book by Aaron Thielen, so whether or not the show has the legs for a commercial future beyond its Marriott run remains to be seen.

The title character is Hero Batowski (Erich Bergen), a 28-year-old young man who lives with his father in Milwaukee, circa 2008. Hero is one of those 20-something people we hear about in the news, adult children who live with their parents while they try to get a life. Hero, still struggling to accept the death of his mother in an auto accident ten years earlier, has zero social skills and hasn’t had a date in more than four years, a dismal state of affairs readily mocked by his boisterous cousin Kirk (Alex Goodrich).

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Hero at Marriott

Comic book culture weaves in and out of the musical, although super heroes are much talked about but never seen, Still, spectators who like in-jokes about Tony Stark and Mr. Sulu will have plenty to chuckle over. Hero’s father operates a comic book store where Hero works…sort of. Hero wants a career as a comic book artist and his self-image is continually battered by rejection slips from major comic book publishers. But other characters inform us that he has real genius for the art form and naturally his talent wins out at the end.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Hero at Marriott

Halfway through the first act, Jane Foster (Heidi Kettenring), who left town the night Hero’s mother died,  is back in Milwaukee to stay; after much hemming and hawing, old flames Hero and Jane resume their relationship. And that’s about the gist of the first act, narrative-wise. Comic relief is supplied by Susan Schmitty (Dara Cameron), a caricature of a nerdy and socially uptight woman who later graduates into a caricature of a nerdy and socially uptight woman who suddenly goes wild after meeting Kirk at an otherwise disastrous little dinner party thrown by Hero for Jane. Additional comedy is provided by Hero’s 12-year old cousin Nate (Jonah Rawitz), one of those precocious wise guy little kids who set my teeth on edge.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Hero at MarriottA few things happen story-wise in the second act, notably an unexpected death. Hero goes into an emotional tailspin but it all comes out right at the end. The show actually ends twice, first with an emotional triumph-of-the-human-spirit number that prepares the audience for a stirring curtain call, only to continue with a short scene humorously portraying a wedding that totally takes the edge off the previous lump in the throat number. This is one of the problems that Thielen, Mahler, and director David H. Bell need to address.

Mahler’s score is character-driven, featuring plenty of insightful and humorous lyrics. However, the cleverest number is a witty novelty piece called “A Vampire’s Kiss Means Forever,” plaintively sung by guitar-playing Kirk to the uptight Susan. It doesn’t have anything to do with the story, but it’s still a hoot. Otherwise, the score tends toward inspirational titles like “By Our Powers Combined,” “There Is Wonder All Around,” and “What It Takes to Be a Man.”

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Hero at Marriott

Hero is an intimate show, especially for the Marriott, with only 11 performers. Erich Bergen’s Hero is properly angst-ridden with his self-esteem wallowing in the red zone, but he seems too handsome to convince the spectator that Hero can’t get a look from a girl. Heidi Kettenring has the best voice in the ensemble as Jane, trying to reestablish a relationship with Hero in spite of the young man’s mood swings. The romance between Kirk and Susan is clearly intended for laughs and both Goodrich and Cameron do their best, but Susan is a ridiculous character and will generate chuckles from only the most tolerant spectators.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Hero at Marriott

Don Forston is blessed with the only three-dimensional character in the show, Hero’s father, and he makes the most of it, portraying a man still grieving for his dead wife, trying to jump start a sluggard son, and keep his comic book store minimally solvent. Michael Aaron Lindner and Alex Goldklang play a pair of genial layabouts who spend most of their waking hours in Al’s store as a refuge from the demands of the outside world. Bit parts are taken by Kelley Abbell, Jameson Cooper, and Summer Naomi Smart.

The usual full-throated Marriott orchestra has been replaced by a five-piece band that does well by Mahler’s lite rock-tinged score (the composer conducts from the keyboards). Thomas Ryan’s set design effectively exploits the theater’s turntable stage. Jesse Klug designed the lighting, Nancy Missimi and Erin Wuorenma the costumes, and Robert Gilmartin the sound.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Hero at Marriott

During the performance my mind drifted back to the movie Marty. That was also a small story about a young working-class man living an unsatisfactory life, surrounded by well-meaning people who make him their special project for happiness. But the men and women in Marty had a depth and realism that was in short supply in Hero. With the exception of Al, I didn’t buy into the credibility of any of the characters in the story, however sympathetic and charming they may be. Also, the use of comic books as a metaphor for the connection between fantasy and real life didn’t work for me.

No doubt this well-intentioned musical is still in a development stage; perhaps the creators can still find the key to elevate their characters into authentic people who deal with real problems. But for the present, Hero is a decent 2 1/2 hours of entertainment, professionally staged, sung and acted with heart and commitment.

photos by Peter Coombs, courtesy of the Marriott Theatre

Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire
scheduled to end on August 19
for tickets, call 847.634.0200 or visit Marriott Theatre
for more info visit or Hero Musical

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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