Thanks to the good folks at the Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis I was able to score a few tickets to Batman Live and I have to say that it totally meets this Batman fan’s approval. Now of course it’s not the dark and gritty version of Batman that many of us love– don’t go into Batman Live expecting it to have been written by the likes of David Mamet. This is instead something that’s geared more toward the 5-13 year old crowd. It’s a family affair that feels closer in tone somewhere between the 1960’s TV show and Batman Forever. You’re not going to the theatre to see a dark character study, a crime thriller, or a sweeping war epic. This is Batman the way you likely saw him when you yourself were a small child. I can guarantee that your kids will love it and if you can loosen up a little bit I think you will be dazzled as well. Here’s my short and sweet look at Batman Live…
The set itself was ever-changing. In the beginning it was tall buildings (I say tall, but only 2-3 feet higher than a man) spread across a lengthy plateau of black stage. The background, a giant LED screen in the shape of a batsignal, showcased even more of the Gotham horizon. This was all mostly used for the opening scene in which Bruce’s parents are murdered. Naturally, I was a bit concerned about how they would show a child watching his parents get gunned down for an audience of mostly small children but the Batman Live team found an interesting way of approaching it. If it was one of the comic books, yeah, I would probably pick it apart and say “Thomas Wayne would never do that…blah, blah, blah.” but as a play put on for young’uns it made perfect sense. A bit corny, but it gets the point across and keeps the younger audience members from having nightmares.
Other sets included Haley’s Circus, a museum of some sort, the Iceberg Lounge, Wayne Manor, the Batcave, and Arkham Asylum. The streets of Gotham and Arkham Asylum were easily the most thorough while the rest relied pretty heavily on the vibrant 3D images being projected on the enormous backdrop. The weakest set was the museum, which didn’t really make much sense and was made up of one of a few buildings from earlier and it was kind of confusing as to whether or not the actors were supposed to be fighting from rooftop to rooftop or from display cases inside of the museum. None of the kids seemed to mind. However, one segment that might make parents uneasy would have to be Arkham Asylum. When we go inside Arkham Asylum near the end I turned to my friends and half-joked “This is probably the darkest Arkham Asylum has ever been depicted.” See, they had a bunch of the inmates bagged and chained. Not simply in straight jackets but completely sacked from head to toe and wrapped in chains that hung from the ceiling. It’s not even like the inmates each had the luxury of dangling from their own chain; there were multiple bodies on each chain making it a pretty disturbing sight. Kinda surprising that Batman is okay with that sort of cruel and unusual punishment, eh? I asked my 5 year old nephew about Arkham Asylum and he didn’t even mention it though. He was too enthralled with how cool Scarecrow looked.
I just really wanted to write a segment dedicated to pageantry and use the word as much as possible. Since I usually do comic reviews and approach it in such a serious way it’s kind of a relief for me to chat a bit about how good something was for being flamboyant. So are there song and dance numbers? Songs, not so much. But plenty of dancing, wire work, magic tricks, choreographed fight scenes, and giant set pieces that are sure to wow you and your little crime fighters. None of these displays last too long so that you get bored or annoyed. It was all spread out just right I thought. The best would have to be the trapeze act at Haley’s Circus and all the surrounding acrobatics. Worst would have to be the weird wirework fight between Catwoman and Batman. Joker’s various magic tricks had the audience Ooooing and Awwwing and the choreographed fight scenes between Batman and Joker’s henchmen had all the kids on the edge of their seat during the show and practicing their kung-fu in the street after the play was over. Costumes were all surprisingly faithful the the source material but obviously some where more campy than others. Penguin was the 1960s TV version, Riddler and Two-Face resembled their designs from Batman Forever. Catwoman’s outfit was very much like the Darwyn Cooke incarnation fans today love so well, Poison Ivy had a Jim Lee style outfit, and the Joker looked straight out of the Rocksteady Arkham video games. Batman and Robin both closely resembled their Batman Forever versions as well (without the nipples though) which is a fitting balance between the light tone and giving the kids the armored Batman their used to seeing on TV nowadays. Batman really looked larger than life. He looked like the hero all of these kids came out to see and it was his costume that was easily the most important. The kids, more than the adults have to believe in that imposing yet heroic figure. You can’t take your kids to go see a skinny Santa with a cotton-ball-beard and you can’t take them to see a Batman who comes short of what they’ve seen in the movies.
I don’t know what it is, but St. Louis absolutely loves the Penguin. I don’t know why, but they do. Joker popping out of a giant jack-in-the-box didn’t excite the crowd, Two-Face didn’t wow anyone when he stormed onto the stage half-burned and holding a gun, Catwoman climbing down a rope from the ceiling didn’t make a single audience member’s jaw drop either, but when Penguin walked out and said “Wah, wah, wah.” people lost their s***. I still can’t understand what happened and it happened two days in a row. My sister and her family went on Saturday morning and reported that Penguin made the crowd go wild. The guy did a great job. He looked the part and was funny, but people around here really can’t seem to get enough of that “Wah, wah.” *shrug*
My favorite performance of the night was easily Harley Quinn. Her voice was pitch perfect and she had many of the very best lines and it was surprisingly one of the biggest roles in the play. So if you’re a big fan of the Animated Series Harley/Joker relationship, this play is a real hoot.
The whole company really brought a lot of energy to the stage. Everyone from the circus folk to the dancers making up Joker’s gang really put on a nice spectacle. I will say that Gordon didn’t feel very Jim Gordon-like to me, but that’s more to do with the script and a lack of importance given to that character’s role (a problem in most of the live productions pre-Nolan). Another problem the play suffered that was also an issue in many, many live action Batman productions in the past is a lack of emphasis on Batman. I can’t really judge the actor who played Batman because Batman really wasn’t in the play very much. You spend most of the play cheering for Robin and really empathizing with him and also laughing at the hijinks of the numerous villains. Batman does little more than show up a couple times to lay the smack down. But perhaps that’s just the way of it. You can’t focus too much on Batman without it becoming a play that isn’t for kids. Once you start spending a little time with Bruce things get dark and rather depressing and it’s best to just see him at his most heroic when you’re entertaining 9 year olds.
One of the most interesting things I noted as a lifelong Batman fan that night was with Two-Face. You know how in some of the comics, movies, and cartoons there’s usually a part where Two-Face changes to a scary voice or a lighter, kinder voice and turns his profile to emphasize who is speaking? Well, it really drives the point home just how crazy this character is when you’re on the wrong side of that. I was sitting on the opposite side of the stage from where Two-Face was facing when he went psycho up there so when he spoke as Harvey, I saw Two-Face and when he spoke as Two-Face, I saw Harvey. Figured I’d share that as it’s something I never thought of before because the proper perspective is always forced upon the viewer in any other medium.
The second half held together a lot better than the first because it focuses on the central story which is simply “Let’s stop the Joker from doing something terrible.” Whereas the first half (yes, there is an intermission in case your kids get antsy) dealt pretty heavily with the origin of Robin (a major part of the play) and various scenes depicting the villains and Batman busting them. The play was kind of all-over-the-place in the beginning and I was concerned that it wouldn’t hold my interest if not for the occasional explosions (you don’t really appreciate how fireworks really are nothing more than colorful explosions until you see and hear them blow up indoors) and bright colors, but the second half totally brought things together and had me captivated. Yes, it’s a very simple narrative, but it was refreshing to just relax and take in a lighthearted superhero adventure for a change that was so uncomplicated. One that was more focused on spectacle, laughs, and rooting for the good guys without question. You’re not the intended audience here, it’s your kids and the kid inside of you.
Go see it with your family when it comes to your city. Chaifetz was a great venue, but I’m sure that wherever this performance goes there isn’t any such thing as a bad seat. In fact, I’d say that the higher up you sit the better. There’s a lot to take in with all of the wire work, constantly changing set pieces, large stage, and pyrotechnics. Plus the farther away you are the more likely you and your kids are to really believe in the costumes. The play is 2 hours long including the intermission, it’s fun for all ages of Batman fans, and theatre itself is just a wonderful thing. I know it’s a cliche to say that “it’s alive” but the fascinating thing about it is knowing no two nights will be the same and your audience’s energy affects the performances on that stage.
You probably still don’t believe me. You’ll Google pictures or videos from the play and remark on how camp it looks. But at the end of the performance I saw, at curtain call, a little boy ran away from his parents and jumped up and down in front of that stage. Batman and Robin pointed at him and nodded. That moment not only made that kid’s week, it evaporated every drop of cynicism I had. So lighten up and go have some fun. The darkness of the comic books and Nolan’s films will be waiting for you when you get home.