Theatre Reviews

Soon I Will Be Invincible

By Christopher M. Walshsiwbi_02

Music and Lyrics by Christopher Kriz

Adapted from the Book by Austin Grossman

Directed by Paul S. Holmquist

Produced by Lifeline Theatre, Chicago

A Very Big Superhero World For One Musical to Explore

One of the main challenges of adapting a novel to the stage is having to simplify an experience that was meant to be stretched over a week or two into one that can be consumed in an evening. With a book that has a fairly straightforward idea, it is possible to eliminate minor characters and transform major characters’ complexity into a few songs, as demonstrated by Chicago Shakespeare’s world premiere Sense and Sensibility. When dealing with a book that attempted to deconstruct the entire DC comics universe by creating a fictional world as equally convoluted, and made every plot and character point a response to some established superhero-world trope, things get dicey, as in Lifeline’s world premiere of Soon I Will Be Invincible. This musical has a huge amount of story and backstory, and while I, who am not familiar with the book, was able to follow along the entire time, it was harder for me to become emotionally invested.

Tommy Malouf and Christina Hall. All photos by Suzanne Plunkett.

We have two narrators: the cyborg rookie superhero Fatale (Christina Hall), and the evil genius Dr. Impossible (Phil Timberlake). Fatale has been invited to join a superhero team called the New Champions, formed to investigate the disappearance of one of the old champions, CoreFire (Jason Kellerman). Their last cyborg member blew herself up battling space monsters, and Fatale fills a niche. Dr. Impossible was in prison at the time CoreFire, his nemesis, went missing, and upon hearing the news, breaks out, and implements his newest plan at world domination, for which he requires several items. Complicating matters for him is that his girlfriend and former supervillain, Lily (Justine C. Turner), has joined the New Champions.

Most of the play consists of Dr. Impossible collecting his stuff while the heroes run around without any leads, except wrongly presuming he’s in some way involved with CoreFire’s disappearance. We do, however, get exposition about the psychology of superheroes and villains from our narrators. Fatale feels self-conscious, as a token team member who hasn’t really earned her place. Even more troublingly, she has no memory of who she was before becoming a cyborg, except that she was injured in a car crash in Brazil, and rebuilt afterwards with her metal bodyparts. It’s your origin story that defines who you are, she says, and she doesn’t have one. Dr. Impossible describes the conditions of being a villain—doomed to fail, but driven to do evil anyway by the nature of supergenius. His simple origin is that he was once a grad student in physics who lost a girlfriend to CoreFire. Presently, he seeks ultimate scientific knowledge, and it irks him that magic exists in this universe, which undermines scientific principles. But, he may have to use magic to win this time, by exploiting the weapon of a supervillain called The Pharaoh, who was a cheesy, gimmicky villain nobody took seriously despite his power.

Clockwise from top: Phil Timberlake, Sarah Scanlon, Frederick Harris, Christina Hall, Tommy Malouf, Taryn Wood, and Corbette Pasko.

Christina Hall’s performance as Fatale displays her character’s insecurity, but overall competence, with surprising realism. Fatale, like the other heroes, is often melancholy, and ambivalent about the affects her body modifications have on her health and social life. But Dr. Impossible is a much more engaging figure, and Phil Timberlake delights in his egotistical, self-aware snark. It’s easy to root for him, and Timberlake’s preening is perfectly tragicomic. The other actors play the rest of the New Champions and a variety of minor characters, most of whom are only present for a few scenes. They do fine with what they’re given, but these characters just aren’t very interesting, and don’t get much development. The exception is supposed to be Lily, the time traveling supervillain-turned-hero who has to earn the trust of the New Champions while still somewhat loyal to Dr. Impossible, but this whole conflict felt perfunctory.

Tommy Malouf
Tommy Malouf

And that’s the problem with the story, is that it exists more to showcase Dr. Impossible as a character than to tell a thrilling adventure. Obstacles arise only to immediately be overcome, rules and abilities exist only for the sake of a particular moment. Other events in the fictional world are referenced to make it seem larger, but are basically throwaway lines (not that the actors treat them that way, but they still are). Yes, that’s the point: Dr. Impossible and the heroes are stuck in an eternal conflict, except that the disappearance of the invincible CoreFire and the possibility that Dr. Impossible will become truly unstoppable in his absence and once he combines magic with science create a possibility that things will actually change, this time. But his “rule the world” plan is too vague, and his disposition too likable to be a high stake, and half the play is still superheroes whining over their love-lives and being clueless. (We discover fairly early on that Dr. Impossible created Fatale in his Brazilian hide-out, but a quasi-Nazi allusion is so far outside of the show’s tone, I’m not sure what to make of it. There are a few moments like that, like another character possibly being bulimic.)

As for the literal worldbuilding, Lifelife’s design team has done a beautiful job. Alan Donahue’s set includes hydraulic platforms, hidden doors, and see-through walls which, combined with Becca Jeffords’s lighting design, create an endlessly flexible playing space appropriate for everything from a Starbucks to a battle near Saturn. Aly Renee Amidei’s costume concepts, along with a brief history of comic book superhero designs, are on display in the lobby. The diverse costumes, from a fairy warrior, to robots, to Dr. Impossible’s self-proclaimed royal garb, are a visual feast taken altogether. Director Paul S. Holmquist found some striking visual moments, and clever uses of entrances and exits to keep the show’s energy high.

Christina Hall and Justine C. Turner
Christina Hall and Justine C. Turner

I’m not sure why the creative team thought a musical would be the appropriate form for this story. Looking over the song list a few days later, I have no idea which moment in the show most of the titles refer to, or had forgotten that those scenes had songs. Fans of the book will enjoy this show for the novelty of it, as, I expect, will hardcore fans of superhero stories in general. I am not sure if it has much appeal beyond them, although with the amount of superhero movies over the past fifteen years, the core fan base for this work may be larger than I think. The show’s language and meta focus make it inappropriate for too young children, but it is amusing enough that I think it could be a fun bonding experience. Plus, Dr. Impossible is hilarious.

Somewhat Recommended

Jacob Davis
[email protected]

Reviewed June 9, 2015

For more information, see Soon I Will Be Invincible’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N Glenwood Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $40 with discounts for seniors, students, groups, and rush tickets; to order, call 773-761-4477, or visit Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 4:00 pm through July 19, except July 4. Running time is two hours and thirty minutes, with one intermission.