nytheatre.com review by Jason S. Grossman
September 30, 2009
The popular superhero theme is given the musical comedy treatment in the cerebral soft rock entry Whatever Man. Our hero, Charlie Weiss, is a triple-threat underdog, underachieving in life, romance, and work. His stronger-willed, better adjusted girlfriend convinces him to try group therapy to congregate with other sad sack misfits. After his first session, he is unexpectedly greeted by a cheerful but misunderstood fellow named Gary. Gary inadvertently reveals his superhuman powers and his alter ego, The Swan. Now, in addition to his self-esteem woes, Charlie is suddenly thrust into the intergalactic plight of needy superheroes.
Benjamin Strouse's new musical (book, music, lyrics) has the look and feel of the popular television series Heroes, underscoring the mundane day-to-day angst and worries of otherwise super-heroic beings. At the center of it all is the sardonic Charlie, loser of all losers, stumped by his own lethargy. The fate of the universe lies in the balance while his girlfriend simply wants to start a family. These mismatched themes are smart fodder for comedy, but Strouse doesn't take the easy route and play for camp; his jokes are mostly served dry.
The production has a strong setup and warmly entertains in sections, but there are inconsistencies in the narrative. While some characters are well drawn, others are introduced but never explored. And Charlie as the lead is such a shlub, it's not always easy to root for him.
The casual discovery of the superheroes in our midst is humorous, but an exploration of how they integrate into our society could have been further developed. While the fate of our planet lies in the balance, the characters, superheroes and laypeople alike, merely go about their business. The action leads to a climactic scene that should pack a wallop, but instead breezes by so quickly, you might not be sure of what occurred.
Strouse has composed a nice, catchy rock score that is tailor-made for the strong voices present here. While the inclusion of one or two songs might seem unmotivated, most effectively reveal the requisite exposition in the play while expressing the needs of the characters. (Such succinct storytelling makes for a condensed program which could have been performed without intermission in less than 90 minutes.)
Hilary Adams's direction keeps everything moving briskly; the scenes practically overlap. The story flows well as characters begin their dialogue before set changes are completed, and video clips are creatively intercut with the live action. Having the multiracial cast dressed in contemporary everyman garb helps to take the glitz and flash out of the traditional superhero genre. The videotaped sequences (designed by Julian Rad) are humorous and comment smartly on notions of celebrity (one superhero wants a cooking show for example).
The cast does a very good job with the material. Kristin Maloney has polish and loads of appeal, hitting all the right notes as Charlie's beleaguered girlfriend. Philip Hoffman is simply a pleasure to watch as Grant, the self-satisfied psychiatrist who leads the group therapy sessions. David Andrew Anderson plays the aptly named Mr. Perfect nicely, finding humor as the all-knowing and compassionate leader of "good" in the good vs. evil conflict. Paolo Montalban has endearing charm and childlike innocence as The Swan. Colin Hanlon has the expressive look and feel as Charlie and has an outstanding voice. His portrayal is so somber, one almost wonders if his character is always in on the joke as he spews his sarcastic one liners.
Another highlight of the production is the excellent fight choreography by Mike Yahn; all action is seemingly controlled by the telekinetic powers of the superheroes (and villains). These segments, although sparingly utilized, are highly enjoyable, and all of the cast members are in perfect sync with one another. Dax Valdes has also choreographed graceful synchronized moves for the characters.
Save for the use of projected videos, this is a simplified production and a nice departure from the overpowering traditional rock musical.