Despite its long-standing love of traditional Broadway fare like "Hairspray" and "A Chorus Line,"the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is no stranger to new musicals. Among other titles, the commercial theater-in-the-round with the huge, if graying, subscription base has premiered "Annie Warbucks," "Windy City" (now there's a show ripe for revival), "Peggy Sue Got Married" and "The Phantom of the Country Palace." Also "The Bowery Boys" (a show not unlike "Newsies") in 2009 and, just last year, a new Marriott musical based on the Bette Midler movie "For the Boys."
But if you ponder all those titles you'll immediately discern that, while new shows, they all are musical comedies targeted to the traditional Broadway demographic. The Marriott has never done a show in tune with the more recent formative developments in the Broadway musical — nothing edgy like "Spring Awakening," "Passing Strange," "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," "American Idiot" or"Once."
"Hero," which has its world premiere Wednesday in Lincolnshire, will be the closest this theater has ever come to programming a show aimed squarely at the under-50 set. Even the posters for the show are, by Marriott standards, a big departure. Yet "Hero" is a homegrown musical in every sense of the word: The music and lyrics are by Michael Mahler, a familiar figure to Chicago audiences from his acting gigs (mostly recently in "The March" at the Steppenwolf Theatre); the book is by Aaron Thielen, who also is the Marriott's co-artistic director. The director is David H. Bell, who helmed "The Bowery Boys" and who is one of a very small set (too small, in my view) of regular directors at this theater.
Thielen, a self-described comic-book geek, dreamed up the idea for the show. "I took a trip to Milwaukee," he said, in a recent interview, "and there was this rustic antique shop where the back door led to a home and a yard. I thought about a comic-book shop and the family that lived in the house. I made an outline and started developing these characters."
Thielen came up with Al Batowski, the patriarch of the retail operation (he'll be played by Don Forston) and also Hero Batowski, his underemployed, 20-something son (played by Erich Bergen, a former "Jersey Boy"). Hero is a sad fellow who, after being encouraged by his dad to draw, buries himself in superheroes but, following a family tragedy, has yet to live up to his own potential; it's hard to be a superhero when you live with your dad in Milwaukee. But then Hero's old girlfriend (played by Heidi Kettenring) comes back into town, and things start to change.
As Thielen describes it, "Hero" is not about comics in the way, say, that a "Batman" movie or the musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" are about comics. This is not a theatrical expression of a comic-book narrative (indeed, Thielen calls it "the Un-Spider-Man."). Mahler describes the show as being "about a kid who reads comics and what comics mean to him." In other words, it's about the consumers of superheroes and the way they have to negotiate between fantasy and reality in their actual lives.
Thielen and Mahler have been noodling away on the project for about three years, fitting it between other commitments. Last summer, there was a "Hero" workshop with students at Northwestern University, where Bell teaches. But this will be the first full mounting of the piece.
"Hero" has a smaller cast (around 12) than what audiences usually see at the Marriott Theatre and, based on a listen to the demo that Mahler has cut, a much more contemporary sound from a five-piece band. The guitar-heavy score has harder rock influences than are typically heard at this theater, although it's still broadly accessible music, at least based on that demo.
I've heard enough of Mahler's prior scores to be looking forward to "Hero." None of Mahler's past composing efforts, which include "Knute Rockne, All-American" (about the Notre Dame football coach), "How You Can Run with a Shell on Your Back?" (seen at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater) and, the best score of all, "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey," have really broken though, mostly because the often quirky or esoteric vehicles for his music to date have limited the mainstream possibilities. But "Hero" is slated much more as a full-blown contemporary musical, holding out real possibilities for a hugely talented Chicago artist, as well as a theater in need of some creative renewal.
"Hero" runs through Aug. 19 at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire; $45-$48 at 847-634-0200 and marriotttheatre.com
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