Yup, gonna ramble on about it! Apparently if you are a bit of a strange duck whose only notable feature to your relatives is that you still read comics sometimes you get weird Christmas presents. Last Christmas I received two tickets to BATMAN LIVE and last Sunday I took my 5-year old heir to see what all that was about. This was pretty exciting because I don’t get out much and it didn't cost me anything. Well, it cost me a hair under £2 for a bottle of water which was all I could stretch to. Judging by the prices while Batman was fighting fake crime on the stage the real crime was taking place at the concession stand. Ho ho! Ba-da-bing!
I suppose I should clear up what BATMAN LIVE is; I thought it was going to be a musical, but it isn't. So no show-tunes to sing in the car on the way home I’m afraid. Yes, I realise BATMAN LIVE is yet another alternate media revenue stream for a DC IP and thus a money maker for a large corporation but since I had The Boy with me I decided to give my inner cynic the night off. Entertain me, I thought and we'll be okay.
Well BATMAN LIVE entertained me and it was better than okay. What it is, I guess, is an “experience”. And you know what, it certainly was. The emphasis is on spectacle rather than sense and, yeah, some of it is pretty spectacular. It's largely a procession of set pieces strung together but since these are all pretty hectic, vibrant and dazzling that kind of works out okay. If you were expecting Henrik Ibsen you'll be bit disenchanted to say the least. Apparently the story is by Geoff Johns, and Geoff Johns is the kind of adult who when questioned about BATMAN LIVE emits this kind of beige drone:
'…he’s an orphan. He’s experienced something that all of us can relate to – loss – that’s just a part of being alive and being a human.’
I like to picture Geoff Johns saying all that while wearing one of those baseball caps with a beer can on each side, the kind with a straw the goes from each can down past the peak into the wearer’s mouth. Maybe waving one of those big foam hands as well. But that’s how I like to picture him most of the time. So, instructed to pump up the proles for the multi-million dollar extravaganza Geoff Johns basically gives with the equivalent of:
"Yore gonna lhu-arn abaht lawsss!"
I guess that explains why a children's entertainment chooses to open with the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and then, almost immediately, with the death of Dick Grayson’s parents. That sure is a lot of tragic orphaning to front load your spectacle with. Still, that's the nature of the material I guess and kids kind of like that morbid fantasy about losing their parents and growing up to be as awesome as Batman or robin. It's mythic or something. Except for The Boy, who wuvs me very much and wouldn't ever want anything to happen to his dear old Dad! Doncha! Lemme chuch your cheekies! No, you can't have any sweets, what am I made of money!
After that it's pretty much all about Robin discovering his new guardian is Batman, donning the mantle of Robin and learning the difference between revenge and justice. Somewhere in there all Batman's rogues decide to gang up on Batman (because they don't like him, is why). That's pretty much your plot, oh yeah, and Robin teaches Batman to unclench enough to give Catwoman a Batkiss. Boilerplate stuff really. Nice and simple structure on which BATMAN LIVE hangs all the real reasons you went: the spectacle. There's illusions (box, lady, swords, etc.), dance routines (I liked the Berkley-esque nightclub hoops one), explosions (loud, startling), wire-fu (yes, you can see the wires. It's still impressive), trapeze artistry (that bit was really neat) and just a whole bunch of entertaining antics.
For comic fans there are numerous shout outs to the papery origins, name-checks for Julie Madison, a cop called Montoya but the finest of all these is a physical call back to that Carmine Infantino Detective Comics Cover (the one with the house shaped like the Joker’s head: #365). This huge thing rolls out onto the stage and there are all these parts of it undulating in an unnatural way and you suddenly realise that the hair and teeth are actually composed of performers. That's quite a remarkable moment so I remarked on it. The pop surrealism of the early comics is evoked with such moments as a security guard patrolling a bank which comes up to his shins and Harley and Catwoman colluding atop a miniature prison. The part with the giant table and chair was a bit puzzling but I liked the wacky goofiness of the image.
The main action unfolds on a (apparently) 100ft-wide, 60ft-deep performance area with a video wall at one end. It’s an odd set up which means the action has to unfold in a strangely constricted space. To the credit of the crew the area is used well allowing the depth to give some scale to the set pieces, scale which would probably be lacking in a more trad wider-than-it-is-deep stage. You can see from my use of technical terms that I’m about as well versed in theatre as I am in Monster Truck Racing, but, y’know, stick with me. I might have a breakdown and start hollering about Marvel’s treatment of Jack Kirby while rubbing mash potato into my face.
Jack Kirby - He Never Gave Up On Us.
Anyway this peculiar arrangement sometimes means one person stands quite a distance away from the other and the resulting conversation looks like two people reluctantly saying their drunken goodbyes in a pub car park come last orders. Most of the time though it’s okay. After all when someone fires a rocket launcher at a Joker balloon, which they do, I guess you need a bit of distance between the two. It also also enables the crafty misdirection of the audience's gaze when characters have to go off-stage. Very clever.
Like I said at one end there's this big video screen and I guess this is the big selling point as it is more technologically advanced than real people moving about and doing stuff. Sometimes the screen shows comic book panels with art in that modern style which is okay but marred by random pen lines.
Mostly though it is used to illustrate scene transitions with a POV travelling down CGI streets or showing whatever techno-magic Bruce Wayne is making the Bat-Puter do. It's nice and all but I was rather more concerned about what the humans were up to. Because I enjoy seeing people doing this kind of thing. Every night on the stage (actually I think they were doing three shows a day) doing the same thing time after time, getting it right without going slowly insane. It's the kind of old timey awesome I like. What with the way things are going this kind of exhibition of physical artistry probably won't be long for the world. Mark me, in 20 years the only things people will pay to watch other people do are sports and *&%$ing. And that's only because *&%$ing will be a sport by then.
So, I was mostly watching the people. Now, BATMAN LIVE is starting its run in the UK before heading State-side in 2012 because they want it to be ship shape for the folks back home. This means we get to see it first and we get to see it with little touches like Alfred’s mic kicking in a beat after he starts talking (but he was unflappably in character and carried on regardless. Respect to John Conroy!) and a dancing waiter butter fingering a tray of glasses during some nightclub choreography. Fella made a nice recovery though and I’m sure no one noticed. And if they did they wouldn't mention it because it would be churlish. Actually I’m okay with stuff like that, it’s very human and in an odd way just makes the whole thing seem more genuine.
(I had to look up the cast so I guess some of these names may be incorrect due to the tendency of actors to be injured/wake up in the Shetland Isles stinking of drink 5 minutes before the curtain rises in Sheffield/get a better part in a sit-com etc. So I apologise for any inaccuracies here.)
Everybody on the stage was pretty impressive at a base level with lovely clear diction, emotions effectively communicated, hitting their marks and all that stuff that looks easy and gets taken for granted but isn't and shouldn't. So I didn't. Hey, when I was a nipper I was once in a musical production of that biblical Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego in the fiery furnace story and I was on stage for about 5 minutes and out back of the Civic Hall chucking my guts up for another 40. So, trust me, I have nothing but admiration for everybody up there from Batman to the people dressed as day-glo clowns hitting Batman with sticks. I thought everyone was simply marvellous, darling!
"Biff! Pow! The Bible's not just for kids, anymore!"
Because of the pace most of the thesps didn't get a lot to work with (even Batman!) but those that did knew what they were doing. Mark Frost playing the Joker seemed to be channelling John Lithgow so that was pretty great. He wasn't scary as such but he was certainly exuberant and he had more presence than a kid at Christmas. Alex Gianni played both Commissioner Gordon/ The Penguin and was neat enough as the latter but as the former he was pretty grizzled and great. John Conroy essayed a nice Alfred, one at once starchy but affable with it. Ah, but Emma Clifford as Catwoman was the stand out performance and brought feline dignity, a measure of self conflict and, yes, zest to a character that is often represented in the fan-mind as a pair of burglarising boobs. Jolly good show, everybody!
I would also like to take this opportunity to proffer, on the behalf of every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom, apologies to the cast and crew of BATMAN LIVE for what probably appeared to be a subdued response from the British audience I sat amongst. Judging from the folk around me the show went down a storm it’s just that we aren't a demonstrative people. We also, it seems, aren't terribly good at picking up on the cues built into the show for applause.
"No, really, we were clapping on the inside!"
My son thought it was "AWESOME SAUCE!" but that isn't on the SavCrit scale so I’ll say the whole shebang from soup to nuts was VERY GOOD! Except for Catwoman who was EXCELLENT! Take a bow, Emma Clifford! Can’t you hear them. They’re cheering for you! Well, they would be if British people ever deigned to do such a thing.
BATMAN LIVE, I thank you and my son thanks you also.
Cheers and thanks to each and everyone of you involved in the production!