What is it? – A live-action stage performance following the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder vs. Gotham City’s gallery of rogues
Na na na na na na na na Batman! One of the most popular characters of all time (notice I did not diminish this by pigeon-holing him as just a super-hero or just a comic book character), his stories have graced every medium imaginable, with the exceptions of ballet and opera. I still hold out hope, though. Fortune found me in possession of tickets to see a live stage production, and I was in eager attendance to see how and/or if it could be accomplished. The act of adaptation from one medium to another always poses unique challenges, with both source and destination influencing how a story is shaped. In the case of Batman, there is a rich visual history to draw upon, with bold and recognizable characters, an iconic setting, and a wealth of kinetic moments to shape fight choreography around.
In theater, we cannot undervalue the importance of the stage and set design. There is a level of abstraction involved which may be both confining or freeing. Though any stage space necessarily cannot match the scope and grandeur of the vistas available to a filmmaker, a set designer can utilize this abstraction to convey mood and atmosphere in a way which may be jarring or unexpected in a film or TV show. Expressionistic or representative set pieces are not usually regarded as strange, as the audience understands they’re watching a story unfold in a strictly limited space.
Also characteristic of a live theater experience is the fact that the audience will most often be arriving and observing the stage space for some time before the performance begins. This time can be capitalized upon by a show’s creators. Let us pause for a moment to define some terms I just made up:
Hard Open – This shall describe a production where a curtain is down before the show starts, hiding the stage from the audience until such time as the show director decides it should be lifted. Thus, the audience’s initial exposure to the stage is abrupt, immediate, and sudden.
Soft Open – By contrast, a soft open would be a situation where the stage is visible, either in full or in part, to the audience before the start of the show. This gives them something to look at in the downtime before the performance, sure, but also gives them time to explore the setting and become however immersed in the atmosphere as they may.
Batman Live goes with the soft open, with a long narrow stage stretching into the arena away from a huge animated backdrop. Before the show, a dozen or so miniature buildings in the Gotham art deco style populate a grid of streets, and the backdrop shows an imposing skyline. There are even a few police blimps hovering around, an element which instantly makes me think of Batman: The Animated Series. The show starts with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents following a screening of a Zorro film, their having been mugged on the street right after. It’s almost de rigueur to include this event in any Batman story. Most people know the hook already, so while its inclusion for completeness’ sake is appreciated, I wonder how many people really need it in order to buy into Batman’s motivations.
Time passes, the stage is cleared, and we go next to Haly’s Circus. Bruce Wayne is hosting the event in some capacity, and Commissioner Gordon is there too, though he remarks that he hates clowns (foreshadowing much?). A young Dick Grayson, son if a family of acrobats, runs into them both and is thrilled to have a chance encounter with Bruce. Sure, we can buy that. Bruce Wayne is a guy who doesn’t hide himself away, and it’s not unlikely that Dick wouldn’t have heard of him before or upon arriving in Gotham. As it turns out, this story is going to focus on Robin’s origins as much as anything, so going this far back for this character is useful. Not as many people are really clear on Robin’s history, judging by the longstanding popular confusion as to how Batman wound up with a little boy following him around everywhere.
The yarn is pretty traditional here as well, but with a few minor twists. Tony Zucco, a local mobster, threatens the safety of the Graysons for protection money, but the mark (either the circus owner or the Graysons themselves, depending on the source) refuses. That is usually how it goes. As the evening progresses, the Graysons take the stage to perform their routine (the first actual bit of heavily choreographed acrobatics, and it’s decent), only to have it end in tragedy as the show has been sabotaged in some way. Usually, and as appears to be the case here, the ropes on their trapezes are cut or tampered with. They fall to their deaths before young Dick’s eyes, echoing Bruce’s trauma and instilling a shared thirst for vengeance against the criminal element.
Dick is then placed under Bruce Wayne’s care, and we are treated to a scene with an enormous foreshortened prop dining room table. Dick hoists himself up onto a chair at the ‘head’ of this table, which is like a long slow skateboard ramp down center stage. The chair itself seems ten times too big for the actor, achieving the effect of illustrating that he’s a young child dwarfed by the sheer enormity of Wayne Manor, but it doesn’t help that Bruce and Alfred seem teeny-tiny even at the near end of the table.
Anyway, Batman sets out to investigate, and here is where two minor but story-serving changes are made to Zucco. Usually, it’s Zucco himself that sabotages the act, but here, it’s left ambiguous so the Joker can later take credit for it. Batman also first intercepts Catwoman heisting some indistinct jeweled artifact from the museum, hoping to wring some info out of her because she was previously romantically involved with Zucco. A small specificity, but I like seeing how different authors build their super-hero stories. It’s something rather unique to super-hero comics, in that as long as the characterization and a few critical events are maintained, the actual back-story and histories are fairly malleable. Though there have been some famous gripes about so-called ret-cons, they usually seem to crop up only when such a change is wildly inconsistent with what has been previously known about a character/continuity.
One thing about the stage show in particular, the first couple fights Batman is involved in are, uh, kinda weird. He is on a gliding rig, and the stage is set with a few of the miniature buildings, so you wind up with a surreal Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon wire-fu sky ballet, Godzilla-scaled and along a single plane. It is distracting both because these are the first fights in the show, and because they play out so unnaturally. Yes yes, comic books tend to be pretty unnatural anyway, but even in the context of other fights later in the show, these are strange.
We are also introduced to a sub-plot involving Gotham’s criminal gallery at large, who meet up at the Penguin’s Iceberg Lounge. He, The Riddler, and Two-Face agree to work together to bring down Batman, and Catwoman hesitantly gets roped in as well. It’s a shame, really, that they bother, because ultimately their stage time and plot importance is minimal. We only get brief monologues from the Riddler and Two-Face, villains who could easily fill the antagonist role for a whole show, before they are relegated to the wings (though it’d certainly be a very different show if the Riddler were the primary threat… can you turn a riddle into a tumbling routine?). The meeting is interrupted by the appearance of Zucco, who is running scared. From who?
Why, Batman of course! A proper fight breaks out, executed wholly at ground level. The melees reminded me very much of how combat functions in the excellent Arkham Asylum and Arkham City games, incidentally. Batman in the thick of it, weaving and managing threats from multiple angles with martial prowess and effortless fluidity.
All that business taken care of, Zucco falls down dead with a Joker-esque grin across his face. Dah-nah-naaaaah!
In the meantime, young master Grayson has gone off to the site of the circus, hoping to… I’m not sure. Find Zucco there? Sniff around for clues? It’s all moot, anyway, as the circus is under new management… clown management! (That was about as clever as a Horatio Caine one-liner from CSI: Miami, I apologize.)
It’s a shame we wasted any time at all with the other villains earlier, because at this point we’re introduced to Harley Quinn, the delightful creation of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for the animated series. I love that she was incorporated, not only because she’s still a relative niche figure in the rogues gallery, but also because the actress playing her was so spot-on. For the unfamiliar, Dr. Harleen Quinzel was a psychiatrist working at Arkham Asylum, the facility for the criminally insane that–really–amounts to a penalty box for Gotham’s elite villains. While working with the Joker as a patient, she fell in obsessive love with him and eventually aided in his escape, becoming his long-suffering second-in-command, wearing an iconic red-and-black harlequin costume. To sum up her and the Joker’s relationship, they are quarreling lovers with high explosives.
Harley as a character is supposed to be endlessly enthusiastic, placing full trust in the Joker even when he repeatedly betrays, backstabs or abandons her. She fights for her beloved, “Mistah Jay”, “puddin'”, and so on, all with a distinctly nasal and over-emphasized Brooklyn accent. She’s great.
And in this stage show, they done good with ol’ Harl. If I could sum her up in a word, it would be “vaudevillain” (get it? get it?). Even in the enormity of the arena, she fills the space with energy, bouncing easily across the stage and hamming it up just enough. She taunts the clown minions, Grayson, and the audience before finally stepping aside to reveal the true main antagonist, the Joker, who makes his appearance suitably enough from within an enormous jack-in-the-box. These characters’ portrayals owe a lot to the animated series, embodying a cartoonish perception of reality grounded in a genuinely threatening psychosis.
I also wanted to take a moment to discuss the costumes, which are a real strong point for the show overall. Given the amount of movement expected, they look right and seem plausible. Looking at them one by one, it’s also easy to see what other source materials they’re taking their cues from. Batman looks as he does in the Arkham games, sporting beefy grey molded body armor. The Joker draws on the Nolan films, with the make-up enhanced grin and gaudy fabric choices, as well as the color palette of Cesar Romero’s portrayal on the Adam West TV show. Harley is somewhere in-between the animated series and the Arkham games, and Robin’s outfit is very reminiscent of the Shumacher films, with the pasted-on face mask (but thankfully nipple-free). Catwoman is very reminiscent of the Darwyn Cooke costume, with the bug-eye goggles and Avengers-inspired Emma Peel catsuit. Whether or not Jack Galloway, the production’s costume designer, is a fan of Batman, he does the characters justice and draws on a wide range of sources to create a cohesive and believable ensemble.
After revealing himself to be the architect of Grayson’s parents’ death, but never really explaining why, the Joker capitalizes on the moment to use Dick as bat-bait. It is wrong to assume the Joker acts as a being of pure chaos, because there should always be a method to his madness. One way of characterizing him, and one the stage show relies on later, is that the Joker finds crime, mayhem and violence to be hilarious, and he wants to get everyone in on the joke, but he cannot abide by the Batman’s apparent lack of a sense of humor. He will make the Batman laugh or kill him in the process. What, then, is the joke of killing the Graysons? Subverting the controlled sense of danger of a high-flying trapeze act with actual danger and peril, perhaps, but this is never articulated. And the Joker finds plenty of opportunities to talk, about his plans and his motivations alike. But never about why he killed the Graysons, or why he’d bother involving Tony Zucco. Or was Zucco unaware of the sabotage until later, and dared to confront the Joker about the scrutiny he had then found himself under? They coulda spared a minute or two to establish these motives and circumstances.
But now, the intermission, in which the audience is given time to, uh, intermiss. This is not over yet!