Any entertainment based on Batman, the caped crime-fighter who first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939, can be expected to adhere to tradition in certain basic ways. And most basic of all are the dictates that the title character must always be personality-challenged and that any actor who plays the Joker gets to steal the show.
That’s what you get with “Batman Live,” a technically impressive spectacle that opened Friday afternoon at the Sprint Center. From the monumental scenic design to the skilled circus acrobats and a virtually nonstop symphonic score by James Seymour Brett, this show delivers heaping plates of “wow” ingredients.
This isn’t a musical, but Brett’s re-recorded orchestral work — a suite, really — is integral to any excitement generated by the live performance. Much of the action, in fact, is synchronized to the score’s sweeping, epic and occasionally playful tone. The other crucial element is what the production calls its video wall – a 100-foot screen where a succession of 3-D animations provides interiors, exteriors and streetscapes from an always-shifting perspective. One of the highlights of the show comes in Act 2, after the audience has been allowed to take a gander at the “real” Batmobile, and on the big screen we see the vehicle launch a thrill-packed high-speed chase through the streets of Gotham as Batman races to Arkham Asylum.
The plot begins with the formative experience of Bruce Wayne’s childhood — seeing his parents slain in a hold-up — to the final triumph of Wayne’s crime-fighting alter ego over the Joker and the other bizarre villains of Gotham. Along the way, he takes in young Dick Grayson — the future Robin — after the youth’s parents, both circus trapeze artists, fall to their deaths as the result of foul play. Robin, apparently not the sharpest knife in the drawer, never figures out that Bruce Wayne is Batman until Wayne tells him. And Catwoman has a thing for Batman and allies herself with the Dark Knight and Robin in their final battle with the rogue’s gallery of heavies.
Batman is the most enduring figure in streak of vigilante-worship that has run through popular culture since the early 20th century. Zorro (referenced in this show), the Lone Ranger, Spider-Man and countless other anonymous superheroes represent a seductive fantasy: that we can be defended by a demigod so pure and incorruptible that only he can protect us from evil. Indeed, in Gotham the apparently incompetent police never hesitate to call in Batman when the chronic crime wave gets out of hand.
The “Batman Live” script by Allan Heinberg has some fun with the basic elements of the saga. Batman seems strangely immune to the Catwoman’s charms, although they do share a kiss towards the end, while the show repeatedly refers to Bruce Wayne’s promiscuous reputation as a “billionaire playboy.” Heinberg allows us to draw our own conclusions about the Caped Crusader’s romantic life. The Joker, meanwhile, becomes the voice of nihilism, gleefully articulating the existential futility of our lives.
But that’s all stuff for the grownups if they choose to partake. The target audience — little kids, many of them costumed in Batman outfits — were abundantly present Friday afternoon, and it’s unlikely they came for philosophical stimulation. Nope. They got what they wanted: fights, explosions, airborne heroes and villains, and a really cool car.
Jack Walker handled the role of Bruce/Batman at the Friday matinee and acquitted himself respectably, considering the role’s severe limitations. The fight scenes were energetic but felt strangely static, perhaps because Batman’s rubberized musculature constricted anything resembling fluid movement. Kamran Darabi-Ford was an appealing Dick/Robin, and many of the key performances were agreeably vivid: Emma Clifford’s slinky Catwoman; Poppy Tierney’s Harley Quinn; Alex Giannini’s Penguin; Christopher D. Hunt’s Two Face; and Christopher Price’s Riddler. They were helped enormously by Jack Galloway’s costumes.
But dominating the show is Mark Frost as the Joker. His expansive performance is fun to watch, and he makes the most of the opportunities for broad humor. The Joker also happens to be the only character in the show grown-ups can relate to. When he says Batman has no sense of humor, what can do we but agree?
The circus becomes integral to the story when Haley’s Circus, where the Graysons perform, is ultimately taken over by the Joker, which allows the producers to present some exceptionally talented acrobats and trapeze artists.
For a show so laden with effects and set pieces, the extravaganza flies past. The matinee began at 3:30 p.m. sharp, and the audience was released by 5:25. That included a 25-minute intermission.