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Review Fri Sep 11 2015

Marvel Universe Live! @ United Center & Allstate Arena: Brace Yourself & Bring Earplugs

There is good...and evil. And everyone wants the Cube -- a thing that glows with an otherworldy blue LED light. As far as I can tell, the Cube is like a nuclear weapon, because in the wrong hands it can destroy the world, but in the right hands it is an infinite source of energy. Then again, maybe the Cube is the Internet? Rest assured, it's like the One Ring. People are going to spend a lot of time duking it out to get their hands on that kind of power. This is a job only totally ripped superheroes and supervillains can handle, hence their arrival on the scene and 60 minutes of verbal jousting that is only slightly surpassed by the huge amount of stage combat punches thrown. That is the premise for Marvel Universe Live!, a Feld Entertainment production that opened Thursday night at United Center in Chicago and will remain there until the 13th before it moves to the Allstate Arena in Rosemont from Sept. 18-20.

Bruce Banner and WolverineIt is perhaps Feld Entertainment's answer to "How do we draw the boy crowd?" after they have conquered the girl populated Disney on Ice world. They definitely nailed it, because more super hero clad boys aged 4-10 were streaming in to the United Center than grown men and women dressed as the Joker and Harley Quinns at all the Comicons of history combined. It was quite charming to see dads and sons sporting their full body Captain America costumes. Twenty minutes in to the show those father/son duos were peeling off their masks in exhaustion as the plot thickened and the elaborate dialogs took slightly longer than the average grade school kid's attention span to process.

Marvel Universe Live! had so much about it that was right, from the faithfully recreated tone of the comic book scenes, to the high production value that included amazing lasers, exciting pyrotechnics and astoundingly beautiful projections of icy mountain lairs, bird's eye Manhattan cityscapes, the head of the Statue of Liberty and hot desert lairs to name just a few locales. The music was suitably adventurous and the cast of 25 Marvel characters were immensely gifted at what they do, throwing convincing punches and striking iconic poses left and right. Visually it was a smorgasboard, one so full of motion that it might take several visits to absorb it all. Children who love action will squirm in their seats when stunt motorcycles appear, or when Bruce Banner and Wolverine must help each other climb an icy mountain to find a villian's lair. That was also one of the few poignant plot points of the production. Overall, the performers were truly riveting in their archetypal costumes. Loki was pure horned evil, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, was the epitome of virtue and how to be a good sport.

The real problem lay in the absence of a unifying vision of the production. In attempting to lay down a thorough plot and wow us with the story, that essence that would make the show feel complete went missing. The pacing was relentless. A line or a joke was barely spoken before a new bad guy crashed upon the scene and changed the focus. There were no pauses in the action to allow the young audience to absorb the importance of a moment. The characters did not learn anything about themselves, transform themselves (except for the Hulk, but it wasn't a good kind of change), gain any insights in to humanity or celebrate any victories together. Scenes cut rapidly to the next location and the next villain needing to be conquered, making the previous battle quickly forgotten.

The script skimped on depth, resorting instead to puns and stereotypes. In dialog, for example, good guys playfully trash-talked one another just as easily as sworn enemies trash-talked one another in between calls to revenge and heroism. A consumerism joke often vied for attention with a sexist one line zinger, like this; "Being a superhero is more than being all about the toys... but the toys are the best part." Versus "You wear way too much make up anyway" (one superhero to a super villain after knocking her out with a punch to the face). This sort of maneuver could be funny in a madcap comedy, but as a quickly tossed-in aside it fell flat. I struggled to hear those lines just to get some insight in to what the producers were aiming for, which I assume was a clever, fast-paced 1940s style caper. Despite the fact that moral platitudes for the kids and racy jokes for the parents were abundant, the pre-recorded dialog mouthed by the players made it difficult at times to figure out who was speaking. Which explains why the performers had to physically emote almost to the point of muscle injury for us to see them.

Perhaps most disappointing is that the core of Marvel Universe Live! is not a circus show that tells a story. It is a live TV show that employs stunt men and circus performers. This departure from circus is not new to Feld, who has been branching out in to other forms of entertainment, like their ice shows, since the '80s. But what Feld does best is spectacle, and circus spectacle is the king of all spectacles. So seeing circus stunts used so lightly, incorporating acrobatics or a whip of fire for example, felt confusing, as if the show would finally take off and revel in the physical, but just as soon as a flip or jump would happen, the plot would move on, never quite astounding us. What was missing in skilled displays of physical prowess was made up for in explosions of light and sound, and probably not missed by the 7-year-old boys anyway.

Marvel Universe Live! has been welcomed in many towns since it debuted in July and is slated to visit 60 towns in North America before the tour is finished. They have fantastic crew, flawless production, amazing special effects, a compelling set, exciting interludes with Marvel characters and a show that will have little ones waving their glow toys enthusiastically. If only this homage to Marvel could have gone a step further and created a lasting chapter in the world of superheroes, allowing us to get to know the characters from a new light, or see some human side to them, it would have been a more lasting thrill. Meanwhile, fathers and kids who want to see their favorite superheroes with their own eyes and feel the heat of the bad guy's explosions on their faces will still get a blast out of it . But moms may want a night out at the opera or to squeeze in a visit to Kurious- A Cabinet of Curiosities for the week that it also remains on the same site as Marvel Universe live!

Tickets range from $30 to $70. The show will be in town until Sept. 20.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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