When Aaron Thielen and Munster's Theatre at the Center acting favorite Michael Mahler decided to team up to create a new stage musical dedicated to the panel by panel artistic and creative world of comic books, they both agreed the production should "feel and look" like stepping inside an actual comic book.
After many months of collaboration, their virtual comic book is ready to be opened by audiences.
The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Ill., is hosting the world premiere run of "Hero," starting previews Wednesday and running through Aug. 19.
Written by Thielen, who is co-artistic director at Marriott Theatre, and with music and lyrics by Mahler, 11-time Jeff award-winner David H. Bell directs and choreographs and Erich Bergen, fresh from the national Broadway tour of "Jersey Boys" stars as the lead character Hero Batowski.
"Hero" tells the story of a talented young artist living anything but a superhero life. After a life-changing event his senior year in high school, Hero still finds himself living at home with his dad, Al, who runs the family comic book shop in Milwaukee. Things start to change for him when he bumps into an old girlfriend, and with the encouragement of his dad, and his best friend and cousin, Kirk, Hero finally has a chance to realize his own dream.
"My inspiration for this stage story started with my own experience growing up in Milwaukee, at a great little store I would go to as a kid who loved comic books," Thielen said.
"I'd always notice there was a back door in this shop that led to a living quarters area and as a kid, I always wondered what the rest of the story was behind that door and that's when my imagination would run wild with possibilities."
"I still love comic books and I thought this seemed like a great setting for a musical story."
In addition to Bergen, the production features an all-star Chicago cast including Heidi Kettenring as Jane, Don Forston as Al, Alex Goodrich as Kirk, Dara Cameron as Susan, Jonah Rawitz as Nate (with Zach Keller at matinees), Summer Naomi Smart as Adele, Michael Aaron Lindner as Kyle with ensemble members Kelley Abell, Jameson Cooper and Alex Goldklang.
In the creative spirit of the piece, the Marriott Theatre is working with website and comic book designer and illustrator Charles Riffenburg of Grab Bag Media. Throughout the rehearsal process, Riffenburg has been documenting the process in comic book fashion for online followers at heromusical.com, which offers audiences an in-depth look into the creation of the show and the world through Hero's eye.
As for Mahler, he said he's enjoyed the challenge and excitement of working with Thielen to create new and original music and lyrics for a story he's watched evolve.
"While working on the creation, it takes lots of time and input to not only create songs that the audience will enjoy, and hopefully remember after they've left, but also strike the balance needed so the music and songs help tell the story and move the plot along," Mahler said.
The first reading of "Hero" was back in the spring of 2009 and Thielen says it "was enthusiastically received," leading to a staged reading in spring of 2010 at the Marriott Theatre for 600 season subscribers.
Next, Thielen and Mahler presented the work as a part of the American Musical Theater Project in conjunction with Northwestern University last fall.
"To me, 'Hero' is the reverse of a piece like Broadway's 'Spiderman: The Musical,' " said Mahler, who was nominated for a Jeff Award for his September 2010 performance of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" at Theatre at the Center.
"It's about real people, with real problems, and how they measure their lives against the comic book heroes they grew up loving. Sometimes things don't always measure up, but it's about learning to see the wonder not just in comic books, but in the everyday world all around us."