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Pop culture is so saturated with superheroes that even loving send-ups and critical deconstructions have become commonplace. Push the Button, a new musical co-written by Drew Anderson and Dwayne Lawson-Brown (of Spit Dat, D.C.’s longest running open mic, fame), is another sweet and salty iteration on the superhero theme that stands out thanks to a rousing hip-hop score aimed straight at young audiences. Under the direction of Duane Richards II, Keegan Theatre’s production balances that blend of spoof and style nicely, almost to the point of masking the faults in a story that never quite soars.
Set in a town cut straight out of the comics page (and dotted with references to locales in the DMV), Push the Button follows the trial of a dastardly Villain (Tre’mon Mills), who has been locked away for allegedly committing the ultimate sin: pushing a very big, very red, very literal button. While the Villain sneers in solitary, the Hero (Quincy Vicks) soaks up the adulation of the townspeople, played by the fine ensemble of Mitchell Alexander, Brianna Thomas, and Robert Willis. Enter a quick-witted Journalist (Ashanti Symone Branch), whose one-woman quest for truth threatens to upend the tidy narrative that will see the Villain sentenced to life in prison and folks like the crooked Judge (Gary DuBreuil) walking away to their own fame and fortune. As the trial approaches, it becomes clear that it is not just the Villain’s innocence at stake, but the very nature of justice itself.
Translating comics to the stage requires a flair for the fantastical, and, in that sense, Keegan’s production is a success. At first blush, the angular frames and overlaid platforms in Matthew J. Keenan’s set seem too plain for purpose, but they quickly prove an excellent canvas for the design team. Projections designer Zavier Augustus Lee Taylor fills the screens with artfully rendered videos and stills that expand the world of the play and outline it with the sharp lines of Golden Age comics. The floor is illuminated by Alberto Segarra’s vibrant lights and provides a suitable backdrop for Imari Pyles’ costumes, which borrow the skintight leotards and impossibly squared double-breasted suits of the early Detective Comics. The cast, ably directed by Richards and choreographed by Branch, fill the stage with cartoonish grandeur that leaves just enough room to bust a move or wink at their own archetypes. They seem free to embrace the show’s over-the-top comedy, and while not every joke lands, the general sense of fun is well suited to the hundreds of local students already packing in for mid-morning matinees.
The show’s slick mix of comics and hip-hop makes an appealing vessel for a story that aims to confront the complexities of justice, media hype, and celebrity worship. Anderson and Lawson-Brown have an ease with blended styles and incisive commentary thanks their previous stage work and their tenure at Spit Dat, which Anderson founded and they both cohost. Their score is appropriately diverse in its genres and sampling: The “Villain Song,” which riffs on both Lil Uzi Vert and Billie Eilish, is a great solo for Mills, while Vicks earns laughs for sinking his teeth into “Trial Song,” which interpolates and parodies Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open.” While microphone limitations frustrate Lorna Ryan’s sound design and sometimes undercut the performers, particularly in the barnstorming opener “I’ma Save You (Hero Song),” the numbers bring the best out of the cast and elevate a story that stutters from scene to scene.
Despite creditably aiming for complexity, Push the Button concludes on a muddled lesson. As the Villain proclaims of his trial, “it’s not about the truth, it’s about the narrative.” While his point about biased media and institutional discrimination is well taken, it’s also undercut in the aftermath of the trial. Part of that is down to the character’s simplistic motivations and the vague nature of the button itself, which is meant to stand in for all the things that we want to do but are prohibited from indulging, seemingly for no good reason. Without giving too much away, it’s difficult to grasp the true takeaway of this particular narrative when so much has changed by the end that what came before hardly seemed to matter at all. Then again, perhaps that is the point.
In any case, the cast and creative team of Push the Button fulfill their brief by bringing a light touch to the superhero genre and all the cred they need to sell Anderson and Lawson-Brown’s score. The show’s attempt to treat fine-grained topics with a broad brush might leave you scratching your head more than you would like, but the beats should get you steppin’ in time.
Push the Button, written by Drew Anderson and Dwayne Lawson-Brown, and directed by Duane Richards II with musical direction by Anderson, runs through April 7 at Keegan Theatre. keegantheatre.com. $40–$55.