By Michael Block
We all have an inner geek. Comic books are one of the ways we let our geek flag fly. But how the characters and stories are portrayed on the page, and on the screen, is ever changing. Perhaps that was part of the thesis of Ultimate Man. Instead, what appeared on stage was a dated musical with weak material, and 28 songs and reprises with only a handful being salvageable.
So what is Ultimate Man about? A third generation cartoonist must get with the times and make his super hero, Ultimate Man, relevant for a 2016 audience. Life imitate art? When Ultimate Man and the citizens of Ultimate City catch wind that change is a-coming and one of their own is about to be killed off, Ultimate Man goes on a mission to the real world to meet his creator and change his story. The plot is overdone. In fact, there's a musical in this year's festival that does it better. So why Ultimate Man now? It's a musical that seems to be lost in nostalgia. The way writers Paul Gambaccini, Alastair William King, Jane Edith Wilson and director Charles Abbott, who also snags a book writing credit, approach the material is through a lens that is not contemporary. In turn, it makes the show mediocre at best. It's like watching the old guy at the party trying to be young and hip. As a whole, the score has an ancient feel. There are far too many songs. But when something works, it really really works. Just look toward "I Want My World Back" and "I’m in Love and I Want You to Know". They're incredible numbers. "Be a Hero" is up there too. The thing with these three is the have a sound that marries the old fashioned feel but lives in today. If that's the overall theme the Ultimate Man team is going for then they need to infuse that into the rest of the score. But so many of the other songs have such agonizing lyrics that it may be best to go back to the drawing board. It’s very likely that the biggest problem of Ultimate Man is the fact that there are far too many cooks in the kitchen on this writing team. While we don’t know the origin of the musical and who specifically is credited to what, it’s clear that the spattering of ideas is what is aiding to the faltering musical. From a book perspective, the rules of the world are plainly out of whack. There are inconsistencies from scene to scene and you have to wonder if the characters in the comic are as dumb as they are portrayed. The other big blaring woe are the far too forced political references. They pop in for laughs that just don’t come because, well, they’re not funny. They’re a complete reach for the plot and sadly don’t add anything. Discovering who the audience is for this musical is also a crucial. Right now, it’s teetering on target audiences. Even with the woes throughout, the end of act one and act two were so close yet so far. “I Want My World Back” is a great number and is the perfect way to end the first act. As nice as it would be to have a full company end, “Ultimately” was such a downer of a number that it defeated the point of “I Want My World Back.” And then on the other end, Act II has a great number in “Be a Hero.” The comedy of the show is weak to begin with so trying to infuse it in the finale is a poor choice. The show must end on a positive note so eliminating the villain verses will give the song a more complete feel.
With only six actors, many doubled up on roles, causing a frenetic atmosphere. Sometimes it’s ok to have an ensemble to be, well, an ensemble. Sometimes casting can be hard but when you find a real-life, all-American Superhero, you have to cast him. Michael Glavan is the hero that saves the show from being a total disaster. Glavan has enough charm to smile away the bad guys. Joyah Love Spangler is an unsung hero. Not only is she a dead ringer for Kelly Clarkson, she has a vocal to match. She gets one of the smallest yet intriguing roles in tech wiz Beth.
Charles Abbott’s direction was weak to say the least. No matter how much of a contribution Abbott had to the book, Ultimate Man lacked excitement. It was drab. The comic world should lead to a plethora of potential. Instead, it was just a series of missed opportunities. The scenic design from Diggle lived in this in between of comically amateur and clean and sleek. Costume designer Travis Chinick had some strong ideas but some severe misses. Multi-track role can limit potential options but jeans in the comic world is an ultimate no no. When everything else is virtually flat, jeans throw everything off. And then there was Ultimate Man’s costume. It's clear where Chinick wanted the audience to look on Ultimate Man. But maybe that was the joke.
It’s hard to say what is the right way to fix Ultimate Man. Adding another opinion at this point is almost futile. When the audience is lukewarm to the material, you have to wonder if it's worth continuing.