Sunday, September 9, 2012

Stage Review: Batman Live (2012) feels half-measured and unsure of its intentions, cries out for musical numbers.

Batman Live is constantly unsure of what it wants to be, which renders the entertaining and ambitious production somewhat underwhelming in nearly every area.  It is not quite a stage play based on the Batman mythos, although it contains dramatic moments and a token amount of 'acting'.  It isn't quite a stunt show or action spectacular, as the stunts are few and the fight choreography is merely competent.  With its plot centering around Dick Grayson's tragic transformation into Robin: The Boy Wonder, it sometimes feels like the show wants to be Batman: The Circus, but even there it is felled by half-hearted acrobatics and a lack of high-flying adventure.  And it certainly does not want to be a musical, even as you spend much of the show expecting the characters to break out into song during any number of moments.  We constantly get the set-up for a bit of song and dance, and narrative certainly can handle a bit of emotionally-charged musical theater in that Andrew Lloyd Webber vein, but the songs never come.  The show feels like the end-results of someone merely saying "Let's do a stage show for kids involving Batman!" and neglecting to figure out what kind of show they wanted to do.  It offers a token amount of everything (except songs, natch) without excelling in any particular area.

The paper-thin plot involves the time-tested origin of Dick Grayson, concerning how his parents die at the hands of criminals and he finds himself becoming Batman's sidekick.  Overall, in terms of tone and content, the film feels like a pared-to-the-bone adaptation of Batman Forever mixed with a more traditional comic book palette.  Even the grand musical score feels closer to Elliot Goldenthal's themes that Danny Elfman's or Shirley Walker's.  There is violence, including several murders (mostly related to the origins of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, even as the show goes to hilarious lengths to keep the Wayne murders offstage), but there is nothing that should bother any youngster who knows about the back story of his or her favorite heroes.

Like Batman Forever, the show is grim while in the company of our heroes while lively and joyful while in the company of thieves.  The show is not shy about acknowledging the lethal stakes (no one says 'destroy' in place of 'kill'), but most of darker material (we're not sure if those strung up prisoners in the climax are alive or not), will soar over the heads of kids who came to watch Batman kick butt.  The best parts of the story are the ones that slightly deviate from standard continuity, and the scenes between Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon are arguably its most interesting. Although the second act sequence where Bruce Wayne reveals his identity to Dick is a corker and I cannot fault any of the performers at least trying to do serious drama.

Most of the classic villains make appearances, although few of them do anything other than establish their standard personality.  With the thin material they are given, it is hard to call their performances any more complex than a costumed entertainer at a birthday party.  They all make their big entrance and get their round of applause (oddly, The Riddler got by-far the loudest applause) but spend most of their time monologuing. Only The Joker gets anything to do, as he basically dominates the second half of the show with the usual morbid panache associated with the character (his banter with Harley Quinn prpvides amusement).  To his credit, the actor in question is not attempting to mimic Heath Ledger or Mark Hamill, but he neither brings his own spin to the character either, coming off somewhat as 'generic comic book Joker'.          

But more troublesome than the thin character work and barely-there story-line are the human-sized technical aspects.  Yes the functioning Batmobile is impressive and yes the giant video screen is a wonderful tool for scene transitions and comic book style-framing (we see the pages of a comic book turning as the story unfolds), but the gadgets are inherently more impressive than the humans.  Despite several scenes set in a circus, the acrobatic action is muted and frankly sub par (Mary Grayson fell to her death a little prematurely in our show).  Ditto the fight choreography, which is barely functional and fails to take advantage of Batman's high-flying reputation (although the first act rooftop chase between Batman and Catwoman tries).

Batman wears a costume similar to Christian Bale's in Batman Begins, and it's clear that his movement is inhibited just as his big-screen counterparts were.  What fighting there is consists of standard and brief fisticuffs (how I yearned for even "Medieval Times"-level skirmishes).  Aside from a few would-be stunts (The Joker makes a great entrance in the second act) and the always impressive sight of Batman gliding down from the ceiling, the story is mostly earthbound.  Again, I presume the very best circus performers are currently tied up *in the circus*, but stunts at least on the level of Buena Park's "Pirates Dinner Adventure Theater" should have been in order.  Batman Live offers a little of everything without really impressing overall.

Still, the show is entertaining and a worthwhile celebration of the Batman mythos.  For younger audiences who have but a cursory knowledge of Batman or merely want to see him in the flesh, this is a treat.  And it was a genuine thrill to see all of Batman's greatest foes (Joker, Two-Face, Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow) menacingly advancing towards him at the same time, knowing that no live-action adaptation will likely ever present such a thing.  The *idea* of Batman Live is perhaps more potent than the actual show itself, but the idea does somewhat make up for the confused construction.  Had the fight choreography and stunt-work been a little better, had the script been a bit deeper, and/or had the cast burst out into song on cue, the show might have merited more than a passing recommendation for fans.

Overall, Batman Live is an enjoyable entertainment that nonetheless suffers from a lack of focus and discipline.  Truth be told, the best part of the show was the very fact that I took my daughter and she sat through it and allegedly enjoyed it.  The idea that she's finally old enough to sit through a live show without any problems whatsoever is in itself thrilling, and next time I'll let her pick what we see.

Grade: B-

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