SPOILER WARNING: The following review contains some minor plot spoilers for the "Batman Live" show currently touring the UK.
While Waterlane Productions' "Batman: Live" is a fun ride, with lots of surprises and tricks to be seen, there are a few bumps along the way, though they may be more noticeable to avid Bat-fan than the casual theatergoer.
In a technical sense, the show is a success, hands-down with the only noticeable mistake during the production we attended being Batman's cape catching on his arm one or two times in the combat scenes. "Batman: Live" is really trying to emphasize that it is not a musical, unlike "Spider-Man: Tun Off the Dark." "Batman: Live" features stage combat, trapeze work, gymnastics of all kinds, pyrotechnics and magic. To list or properly describe all the jaw-dropping sights would spoil the fun. The cast is extremely talented, and the work they put in – both stars and ensemble alike – shows. The group behind this facet of the show is Circus Space, and their work needs to be seen to be believed. The unbelievably gifted Flying Graysons in particular have a surreal, larger than life feel, being an act simultaneously authentic in their feats and fictional in their narrative. The set, part of which includes a miniature Gotham City, is rendered in intricate, loyal detail. Costuming, make-up, lighting, video and sound all shine as well, making the show an immersive experience. There are loads of explosive, sometimes even surreal or psychedelic scenes, one of which is literally eye-popping.
One major issue actually has little to do with the actual presentation; Batman is obviously meant to sell merchandise, but the fact that the show's program cost £15 after buying a ticket is certainly a problem.
That said, the credits are pretty telling. Stan Berkowitz and Allan Burnett make up part of the writing trio, which explains the many similarities in characterization the show shares with "Batman: the Animated Series." Plotwise, there is not much here longtime fans have not seen before, with the unfortunate exception of two bizarre tweaks to Batman's mythos that make for some uncomfortable moments. Even with a plot that's fairly predictable, and bluntly stated, a rehash of several well-known Batman stories, the story manages to often be just as fun as the spectacles themselves. Indeed, the weakest moments only occur when the writers are providing unnecessary exposition, and let's face it- most adults and children are familiar with Batman's origin, and those who aren't probably won't care. Either way, a lot of exposition could have been cut out. Fortunately, the characters do have some time to just be, which makes for many of the most memorable moments; it just would have been nice to see more of that. With a plot that is solid, yet covers so much familiar ground, it also would have been nice to see a fan-oriented nod or two, maybe a cameo from another, lesser-known Gothamite or Bat-villain, or even another DC Universe resident -- a not-dead-yet Boston Brand cameo would not have been out of place at all, for example.
Remember those tweaks we mentioned? The first occurs during the obligatory origin scene for Bruce. After a night out at the theater, Joe Chill accosts the Wayne family in a back alley. Having witnessed this event hundreds of times in comic books, the scene appeared to be going beat for beat until Chill takes Thomas Wayne's wallet, bragging that he now knows where the Waynes lived, and running away. Thomas Wayne then runs after Chill, and in this odd new twist, Martha Wayne almost saves the scene from sheer lunacy by stopping Thomas. Thomas then bizarrely protests "he knows where we live, Martha," then runs after Chill, with Martha not far behind. Did they leave Bruce behind? Did they take him with them? Neither would have made sense, and I honestly can't remember, my head was spinning so fast at the sheer strangeness of this story choice.
The other odd change occurs later in the story, right after the death of the Graysons at Tony Zucco's hand. Instead of Bruce warmly offering to adopt the newly orphaned Dick Grayson, Commissioner Gordon has to convince a resistive Bruce to adopt Dick.
As we mentioned previously, when the characters are allowed to be themselves, this show is flying. Throughout the show there are many scenes that are both touching and genuinely funny. There are great performances all around, especially from the sensual yet badass Catwoman, a zen, dry-humored Alfred, a manic/adorable/hopeless Harley Quinn (sporting duds somewhere between the cartoon and those from DC Comics' New 52 "Suicide Squad" comic) and of course the classic scene-stealer himself, the Joker, who gives a performance blending the best traits of all the different eras of the character. The ensemble, too many to mention here, were clearly working just as hard as the starring cast.
Ironically, one of the weakest aspects of the show is Batman himself. Bruce/Batman's performance often fell flat, though the script is of significant blame in this regard due to much of the exposition falling on his massive shoulders. In one scene, Gordon mentions Bruce always having a girl on his arm, like Vicki Vale or Julie Madison, and in so doing breaks one of the golden rules of both theater and comics: "Show, don't tell." It would have been nice to see this scene especially, since Bruce rarely is rarely given a chance to just be himself or put on his brash fop act.
Batman's costume was problematic as well, mostly due to its size. The aforementioned shoulders alone looked almost as big as volleyballs, and with the whole costume featuring a hugely muscle-bound look, Batman clearly appeared to be having some difficulty with all forms of locomotion, be it stage combat or one of his awkward running scenes. We understand that the character is a corporate property, and they want to sell action figures, but something's got to give. It's hard to believe Batman is a martial arts master when he's too bulky to move well. The fight scenes, which were something of a mixed bag (becoming stronger throughout the show), could have been even better that way.
At its best, "Batman: Live" feels like some of the great Silver Age comics or animated episodes come to life, illustrating, once again, that the superhero genre can work in any medium. At its worst, "Batman: Live" feels like someone, perhaps a producer, felt this was just too "out-there" a concept, and thought the show needed to be grounded or explained so the audience would "get it." Ironically, it is these moments when the show tries to take itself too seriously through needless exposition (or strays too far from the source material) to avoid being silly and farcical that it comes off as silly and farcical. Fortunately, we were attending the very first show, and many of these wrinkles have time to be ironed out.
"Batman Live" is currently touring arenas in the UK. For more info, visit www.BatmanLive.com