Batman returns in an arena show

Posted 10:56pm on Thursday, Dec. 06, 2012

Superman and Spider-Man have transcended comics, television and film to add another entertainment format to their ranks: musical theater.

In Superman's case, it was an ill-fated musical, It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman!, by Charles Strouse that was a flop on Broadway in the late '60s and was revised in 2009 at Dallas Theater Center.

For Spidey, it was an expensive Broadway musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, with music by U2. It suffered headline-making mishaps in previews, before it officially opened last year.

You can now add Batman to that list, although in this case, it's decidedly not a musical, but rather a theatrical spectacle designed for stadiums with an original score.

"I think what [DC Comics] liked about my pitch was that it wasn't a musical," says Nick Grace, the executive producer of Batman Live: World Arena Tour, which began in the U.K. in 2011 and began touring the U.S. this summer.

It makes a stop in Dallas beginning Thursday, with six performances at American Airlines Center. (A Wednesday performance has been canceled.)

"I couldn't see Batman singing; that didn't even occur to me," he says.

"Also, we didn't want to set it up in one theater. We wanted to put it in a big space and tour it around the world so that Batman would come to your city. They liked that idea."

Roots in rock and theater

That idea began in 2009, when Grace, who previously produced the animatronic-dinosaurs event Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular and had long been a fan of Batman, took the idea to DC Comics and Warner Bros. The companies had produced the series of mega-hit films based on the Dark Knight and his ever-popular parade of Gotham City villains.

With their green light, Grace started assembling his own dream team, which included creative director Anthony Van Laast, co-director James Powell, writer Allan Heinberg, production designer Es Devlin, video producer Sam Pattinson, costume designer Jack Galloway and consultants from the U.K.'s National Centre for the Circus Arts.

"I have this amazing creative team who have a theatrical background, but have also worked in rock 'n' roll," Grace says. "They've worked in opera houses in Europe, but have also worked with Lady Gaga and the Rolling Stones. So they know to tell a story in a big space."

That mix of theater, spectacle and action comes together in a $15 million production, and a story that involves all of the characters you know so well: Bruce Wayne/Batman and his sidekick, Robin; their butler, Alfred; and supervillains Catwoman and the Joker, who play a major role in this story. Other baddies, including Poison Ivy, Two-Face, the Penguin, the Riddler and Harley Quinn, are along for the ride.

Among the cast of 42, about half are actors with Broadway, West End and international theater credits, and the other half are circus performers who execute the show's aerial and trapeze stunts.

There's lots of flying above the arena, plus pyrotechnics and a 100-foot, bat-shaped video screen with newly drawn illustrations from DC Comics that add backstory and also advance the plot.

"It's an adventure story, a spectacular show with a story," Grace says. "Without the story, it's just a light-and-sound show, and that's what we didn't want to do."

For fangirls, too

Special attention was paid to the idea that although comics and superheroes are largely viewed as male interests, women love Batman's characters, too. That's why Grace hired Heinberg, who has written for TV shows Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls, Party of Five and Grey's Anatomy -- all shows with large female fan bases.

There's a "girl-power" thread with the villains Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn in the Arkham Asylum lair. However, unlike in the movie versions of Batman from the past few decades, there's not a true love interest for Bruce Wayne.

"There is a kind of relationship between Batman and Catwoman," Grace teases. "I won't give the story away. She's a villain, but she and Batman do flirt with one another, as they always have."

Fans of the characters and comic books won't find anything out of place, Grace promises. "You don't want to go out of the Batman world because it's not broken," Grace says, "but we wanted to have our own take on it. Warner Bros. and DC Comics worked with us the whole time to make sure we stayed in the Batman world.

"I grew up with Batman," he adds. "He's such an iconic superhero that crosses over all ages. For me it was so obvious, I couldn't understand why it hadn't been done before."

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