Theater comes in all shapes and sizes, from flea circuses to the Super Bowl, but very few stage plays embark on a “world arena tour.”
But as you read this, crews will be prepping the Sprint Center for “Batman Live,” a spectacle that has toured Europe for a year and is now barnstorming its way across North America.
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The mélange of theater and circus arts has 42 actors and acrobats, a 100-foot “video wall,” a custom-designed Batmobile and an enormous moving Joker’s head with actors playing the teeth as he seemingly regurgitates tumbling acrobats.
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Executive producer Nick Grace, whose history includes producing or managing international tours of “Mamma Mia,” “Cats” and the “Walking With Dinosaurs” arena show, said the idea of translating Batman into an arena format was his. He pitched the idea to Warner Bros., and the company went for it. A mere $15 million later, “Batman Live” opened in the United Kingdom.
“I think one of the reasons Warner Bros. and DC Comics said ‘yes’ is because I didn’t want to sit down in a theater,” Grace said. “I wanted to put it in an arena. If it goes into an arena it’s a big statement and that’s what Batman deserves.
“I think they liked the idea that we were going to travel around the world in arenas, and it was going to be an original story. And I think they also liked the fact that we didn’t want to do it as a musical.”
Grace put together a team with impressive credentials: stage directors Anthony Van Laast and James Powell; script-writer Allan Heinberg (“Sex and the City”); production designer Es Devlin, who has worked on shows for Lady Gaga and Kanye West as well as most of the major European opera houses; Broadway and West End sound designer Simon Baker; video producer Sam Pattinson, who created video for tours by the Rolling Stones and U2, among others; and lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe, whose work has been seen on tours by Michael Jackson and ABBA as well as productions of classical opera and dance in Europe.
The Batmobile was created by famed car designer Gordon Murray, and the music was scored by film and stage composer James Seymour Brett. The score was recorded by a 90-piece orchestra at Abbey Road Studios.
And there’s the video wall, projecting illustrations by comic-book artist Jim Lee.
“Everything on the video screen is drawn, hand-drawn,” Grace said. “There’s no real live images. It’s like a comic book. And it’s been drawn with the help of DC Comics, so everything on the video wall is like still comic panels or its animation. We’ve tried to do the show as if you’re watching a 3-D comic coming to life.”
“Batman Live” isn’t the first and is unlikely to be the last steroid-injected theater piece designed for arenas. In recent years “Ben-Hur Live,” replete with a chariot race and sea battle, toured Europe but has yet to be seen in North America.
“Apart from being the ultimate family night out, it’s a spectacular arena show with a thrilling Batman story,” Grace said. “It’s a completely new way to experience the world of Batman.
“When you tell people it’s a family show, they think it’s on ice, and we have to tell people it’s not just a parade of characters. It’s an original story and a cast of 42 actors and circus performers, and we want the audience to relate to the story and invest in the characters and go on an adventure.”
Some of the reviews have been dismissive. Others have given the show a thumbs-up.
Marc Bernardin, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, found the stage combat less than enthralling — “Batman and Robin, encased in thick padded costumes, are so leaden and heavy that every fight has all the kinetic energy of a game of Yahtzee” — but concluded that the target audience would be pleased.
“None of that matters if you’re 9,” Bernardin wrote. “If you’re 9, you applaud every time the Joker cackles. If you’re 9, you gasp when the Batmobile rolls out onto the stage and fires rockets into the audience. If you’re 9, you believe Batman can fly — and if you don’t you’ll wonder why he spends so much damn time floating around on wires. If you’re the right age, you inhale ‘Batman Live’ like the empty-calorie confection that it is.”
In the UK, Rob Hughes of the Telegraph observed that the show avoids the darker interpretations of the Batman saga we’ve seen in some of the films.
“Those anticipating some deeply existential tale along the lines of ‘The Dark Night’ or ‘Batman Begins’ are advised to head elsewhere,” he wrote. “The story here — Batman meets Robin, they set about ridding the city of all that pesky villainous trash like the Joker, the Penguin, Two Face and the Riddler — acts as a sturdy prop from which to hang all manner of candy-striped set pieces.”
Grace, 55, began his show-business career modestly: He went to the famed Sadler’s Wells theater in London and asked for a job, any job.
“I walked into the stage door of the theater and asked for a job as a stage hand,” he said. “That’s how I started my career. Then I went into stage management and production management and then I fell into producing.
“I thought I would go into the theater as a stage hand, and if I didn’t enjoy it I’d try something else. Well, I’m not looking for anything else at the moment. If you can find a job that is also your hobby, that’s a win-win situation. I’m in the lucky position that my passion is my work, and I find it exhilarating giving extremely talented people work, and ‘Batman Live’ is one of those examples.”
Grace said the North American tour is open-ended — “Since this is the home of Batman we want to stay here as long as we can” — but eventually he hopes to take the show to Asia and Australia.
Despite his success in show business, Grace never had a desire to perform. Not ever.
“That never appealed to me at all,” he said. “I quite enjoy being in that kind of back-stage role. It’s never occurred to me to be a performer, and I’ve never tried.”