The presence of superhero themed entertainment, especially movies, has been all pervading in recent years as Hollywood unveils, reboots, and rehashes multi-billion dollar franchises with increasing fervour. These stories are far more sophisticated than I recall in my childhood - I am from the generation of comic books which have now been superseded by the far more ‘respectable’ (and thematically dense and generally darker) graphic novel. It’s interesting then to see what impact this has had on a generation immersed in tales of (mostly) good versus (mainly) evil where a dizzying array of filmmaking talent and special effect wizardry makes the most outrageous of superhero powers possible.
Fascinatingly, one answer to that question is an original superhero comedy musical, written and directed by graduating Murdoch University student, Scott McArdle. Even more so when it becomes very clear that this is, in fact, an anti-superhero comedy musical. To say that McArdle’s last student production is ambitious would be an understatement of heroic proportions – a two hour and fifteen minute running time, a twenty-one strong cast, an equally large production team, a nine piece band, all original songs and a thematically cohesive Book that dissects superhero mythology with laser-like precision.
The story in short, a barista called Polly decides to take a stand against the protector of Destiny City, the invincible Captain Astonishing, whose battles with The Destroyer claim innocent lives and disempower the local citizenry. Polly enlists the support of a couple of comic book geeks, a scientist, and an ex-cop, and holds a public protest to disastrous results while dodging the attention of secret agents and falling masonry from rooftop battles atop skyscrapers. Captain Astonishing has problems of his own, mainly of the slowly going out of his mind variety and indeed ends up living long enough to become the villain.
McArdle is steeped in superhero lore and there are plenty of in-jokes and references throughout as well as all the tropes and twists one would expect in such a tale – secret underground laboratories, shadowy government organisations, an indestructible superhero with an equally powerful nemesis, secret identities, and a climactic final confrontation. But unlike Man of Steel (nicely bitch slapped) the city still stands at the end as ordinary citizens regain a sense of purpose with the removal of a god-like figure to protect them. The most telling line is tagged with the “with great power comes great responsibility…” – “… and with no power comes choice.” While crime rates are at an all-time low and coffee remains readily accessible, the people of Destiny City are an unhappy lot, powerless in the face of the titanic struggle supposedly being waged on their behalf. Purpose, choice and destiny are within their grasp if only they would seize the opportunity and stand up to Astonishing. Polly is the catalyst for this revolution as the superhero becomes the enemy and ordinary people battle the extraordinary… with a little help from the wonders of science.
Shannon Rogers is excellent as Polly and gives a nicely grounded performance as the mayhem swirls around her. Rogers has a pleasant singing voice but it’s the acting chops here that are crucial as she essentially plays the moral anchor to the story even when things don’t go according to plan and Polly’s own secrets are revealed. She also has a deft touch with the physical comedy elements and occasional droll one liner. A demanding lead role that sees her battered from pillar to skyscraper rooftop with the bruises to prove it.
James Hynson gives an engaging performance as the ‘Einstein’ of Polly’s mock-resistance group and his character plays a pivotal role in coming up with the Plan B that saves the city. Rogers and Hynson work well together and, again, he gets moments of comedy but also imbues the scientist a strong moral conscience that gives Polly an additional nudge when required.
Second Chance Theatre regular, Emily David plays the fired cop, Stacy, with snarling intensity and has a little Ethel Merman going on with her singing which was a nice counterpoint to the other vocal talent. Then there are two pairs of comic foils – the superhero loving nerds Kirby and Frankie (Justin Crossley and Sophie Braham) who are all geek enthusiasm though clearly (and amusingly) delineated between different fandoms. Crossley has a nice dramatic moment when Kirby takes Polly and Stanley to task over discussing – spoiler alert – Frankie’s death as an abstraction whereas he actually knew her as a real person. The other pairing is secret agents Philson and Rodgers (Andrew Dawson and Launce Ronzan) who come from the Keystone Cops school of homeland security and are very good with a series of hijinks and pratfalls as they eventually bumble their way to the city’s defence. In smaller roles, Joel Sammels made the role of Polly’s Boss memorable, as did Rachel Doulton with the insistent Landlord.
This leaves one key character - Captain Astonishing himself. He makes an appearance at the end of the First Act though, of course, he’s been right under our noses the whole time. Played with relish by Sven Ironside with a jawline to die for and a costume maybe not to, he adds a real sense of unpredictability and energy. This is totally in keeping with the character’s mental disintegration and in service of the plot but it was more than that. Ironside’s first big number where he proclaims he will do things “my way” had the sort of energy and attack that the earlier songs lacked. That’s not to say they weren’t good but I had a sense that the musical performances were almost too careful and a little safe. Here, Ironside throws himself at the number and it elevates the material. The same could be said of the fine set piece extolling the virtues of science that had some Chicago-style pizazz and was playfully handled by the ensemble.
The piano driven score was good and the band played very well. There was an overall lack of songs for my musical taste with long stretches between numbers at times but those we had were well crafted. The set and lighting design was impressive and set transitions handled swiftly and economically. The show hit its straps in the Second Act and the climax was well handled.
This really was an impressive production on so many levels – the sheer audacity and scope alone is to be applauded but the writing here is well balanced between comedy and darker, more dramatic moments and is thematically compelling as a reaction to the adoration the world of superheroes and their exploits usually receive. My only question mark is that the nominal nemesis, The Destroyer, is only ever referred to in dialogue other than represented as a drawing on the café scrim. I never had a real sense that he was a worthy adversary to Astonishing. The songs are good though I think, for a two hour plus running time, there needed to be more of them and with a greater sense of verve in presentation. The ensemble work well and there are amusing walk-on parts and activity happening all the time as we see glimpses into the lives of Destiny City’s citizens.
Written and Directed by Scott McArdle, Music by Nick Choo, Lyrics by McArdle and Choo, with Musical Direction by Glenn Tippett, Extra Ordinary People is a fine way for Second Chance Theatre to end their stint as a student-based theatre company and to cap off a big 2014. I am eager to see what McArdle and his creative collaborators come up with in the New Year.