03/22/2013 08:25 am ET Updated May 22, 2013

First Nighter: Soft ...Hardbody, Happy Happy Birthday and It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Not Too Good

Hands on a Hardbody follows -- with music -- a marathon where the contestant who keeps at least one hand on a truck the longest gets to drive the shiny new vehicle home. The tuner-loving pal I took, being heartily dismayed by the enterprise, joked that the enterprise should be renamed They Shoot Chevys, Don't They?

If only librettist Doug Wright, lyricist Amanda Green and composers Green and Trey Anastasio had that kind of, uh, hands-on wit to spread around, they might had something at the Brooks Atkinson with their songing-up of an actual Longview, Texas incident as covered in the S. R. Bindler film .

But although Wright has shown his skill on offerings like Quills. I Am My Own Wife and the book to Grey Gardens, although Green has written a clever song now and again as has Phish founder Anastasio, the trio don't come up with much of anything here in the transfer from the La Jolla Playhouse where it was commissioned and originally choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (now running -- get this transition -- the Paris Opera Ballet).

How closely the creators -- joined by director Neil Pepe and choreographer Serge Trujillo -- have stuck to the real-life participants I can't say, but they do place the action (what little there is of it) at a Nissan dealership, Since the true-life setting was a Nissan concern, apparently the manufacturer had no leverage to stop this embarrassing depiction of a failing East Texas outlet trying a desperate build-business promotion.

Evidently, the suspense of Hands on a Hardbody is meant to spring from which of the 10 marathoners is the last man or woman standing and holding. Unfortunately, too little is known about them -- and too little drama is stirred up between and among them -- for anything approaching nail-biting audience concern.

A few -- Jesus Pena (Jon Rua), born in Laredo of Mexican descent; Chris Alvaro (David Larsen), a stoic returning war veteran -- chant about their personal situations, but since the ditties that ambush the audience sound like the same song over and over, none have much impact. (Okay, Keala Settle rocks the room with a quasi-gospel "Joy of the Lord.") That it took two composers to concoct these tunes is a real poser. Green's lyrics, which mostly rely on an AABAAB rhyme scheme, don't do much to heighten and brighten things, either.

Among those toiling to little avail are Keith Carradine (who toplined The Will Rogers Follies with lyrics by Green's dad, Adolph, and Betty Comden) and Hunter Foster. Those two and several others -- whom choreographer Serge Trujillo gets on top of the red-truck centerpiece as often as he can -- are the sorts of performers you'd like advising to keep on truckin' but can't when their opus unfolds so sleepily.


When First Lady of the American Stage Helen Hayes was looking around for a change-of-pace property in the early 1940s, savvy Anita Loos got wind of the search and came up with Happy Birthday, wherein teetotaler Addie Bernis timidly enters Newark's Jersey Mecca Cocktail Bar, a jumping spot at which her alcoholic father does much of his daily dissipating.

Before Addie leaves, she's changed her ways so radically that she's not only found the loving banker of her dreams and favorably altered the fortunes of everyone in the place but has belted out "I Haven't Got a Worry in the World," which the production's original producers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammersteins II wrote.

Recognizing the fun that can be had with this example of a barroom play and with what was really intended as a 1946 vehicle for Hayes (who won a Tony in the fling), Scott Alan Evans, the artistic director of The Actors Company Theatre, has pumped new life into the piece at the Beckett.

No one will ever make a case for Happy Birthday being one ot the great plays -- Loos herself would undoubtedly have laughed at the thought -- but Evans in his capacity as the dusting-off director and the 15-member cast couldn't be zippier as they crowd the place with their personal intrigues and their turns dancing to "Melancholy Baby" on the jukebox that set designer Brett J. Banakis has placed upstage.

As Addie, Mary Bacon inebriates amusingly while building to, among other escapades, a tango executed with the proprietor's husky son Don (Tom Berklund). As the tough-talking but kindly proprietor Gayle, Karen Ziemba does a remarkable job playing against type. This is a character turn that could very nicely broaden her impressive career to date.


It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman opened on Broadway in 1966, and when it did, director Harold Prince, bookwriters Robert Benton and David Newman and songwriters Lee Adams and Charles Strouse hadn't solved many of the problems they faced making a musical from the popular comic strip.

Nothing has improved (in a Jack Viertel concert adaptation) now that the show is revived for the City Center's Encores! series. Truth to tell, Superman (good-natured strapping Edward Watts also as alter ego Clark Kent, of course) doesn't face much opposition from either adoring Lois Lane (Jenny Powers) or, more diabolically, Dr. Abner Sedgwick (David Pittu in a funny fright-wig), whose sinister intentions aren't very clear or threatening.

Maybe this kind of B'way curiosity is what the programmers for the respected series should be resurrecting, but somehow it makes an unintended argument in favor of sticking to more artistically and commercially successful items.

Although the minuses outnumber the pluses in the look-back--the weak score is chief among them -- there are a few things to praise under director John Rando's hand. Curiously, the two best songs, "You've Got Possibilities" and "Ooh, Do You Love You!" are handed to second female lead Sydney (Alli Mauzey, on short leave from Wicked and following role's originator Linda Lavin).

As a result, Mauzey kinda steals the show, though Watts, Pittu, Powers and Will Swenson as Clark Kent rival Max Mencken demonstrate their stand-and-sing talents. Choreographer Joshua Bergasse puts Craig Henningsen, Suo Liu, Jason Ng and Scott Weber as Dr. Sedgwick's acrobatic henchman though astounding paces. Music director-conductor Rob Berman invigorates the Eddie Sauter's already invigorating orchestrations.