One of the biggest hits of the Chicago theater season a couple of years back was a musical called "Hero."
Audiences filled the 800-seat theater.
The Chicago Sun-Times called it "instantly engaging and wholly accessible," "emotionally smart yet wonderfully playful," and "young, funny, real and full of heart."
It won two Jefferson Awards, including one for Best New Musical.
"That's the Chicago equivalent of the Tony Awards," said David H. Bell, who directed that original production.
Bell is in town to direct the Asolo Repertory Theatre production of "Hero." It will be the first time the musical has been staged since its world premiere.
There's a comic-book backdrop to "Hero," but Bell says it's not a comic-book musical. It more about the comic-book subculture that comic book superheroes, he says, but it's even more about universal human predicaments.
"It's a family drama," he said. "It's a wonderful play about a family getting by through all crises that develop over the course of the play."
The story revolves around Hero Batowski, a 28-year-old unpublished comic book artist. He still lives with his parents, and he and his father run a not-too-successful comic book store next to their home. Hero chronicles his existence with a journal in comic form, but doesn't think his work is good enough to send to publishers.
There's a painful incident in his past that he can't get over, but an unexpected twist forces him to take control of his life.
Director Bell is returning to Asolo Rep for the first time since his musical "Fanny Brice: America's Funny Girl" had successful run there almost exactly two years ago.
He's also the head of the musical theater department at Northwestern University.
The music and lyrics come from Michael Mahler, a Chicagoan and a Northwestern alumnus whom Bell calls a "genius."
"He's a young man, but he's already a major figure in Chicago," Bell said. "He is not one of the grandsons of Stephen Sondheim. He goes for the meaning of the lyrics. He doesn't draw attention to their cleverness, His songs remind me of folk songs, or pop songs."
Mahler has most recently worked on additional lyrics for a new Cameron Mackintosh production of "Miss Saigon" that's set to open in London on May 3.
He'll be in Sarasota for the Asolo Rep production of "Hero," which features a five-piece rock band in the pit.
Besides, he said, Mahler and Bell, the Asolo Rep production features to cast members from the Chicago production and four or five from New York, the rest of the cast is from Florida.
"It's 13 people," Bell said. "That's small for a musical, but it's large for this space."
The space, he said, promises to make "Hero" an even better experience for Sarasota audiences than it was for those in Chicago.
"We did it in the Marriott Theater, which is an arena theater," he said. "It's 800 seats, but it's in the round. So this is the first time it's been done on a proscenium stage."
The intimate settings of the play, which unfolds largely in the family's home and comic book shop, make the relatively confined Mertz Theatre stage a better for the story, Bell said.
Besides, he said, Mahler and Aaron Thielen, who wrote the book for "Hero" have re-written some of the show so that it's even stronger than the premiere.
Details: "Hero" opens May 2 at the Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets prices range from $26 to $73. Call 941-351-8000 or go to www.asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.