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Ambitious Marvel stunt show makes world premiere in Tampa

Concept image of Tony Stark's Workshop from Marvel Universe LIVE! a new arena show from Feld Entertainment that will utilize state-of-the-art 3-D projection to transform the entire arena floor and rear wall.
Concept image of Tony Stark's Workshop from Marvel Universe LIVE! a new arena show from Feld Entertainment that will utilize state-of-the-art 3-D projection to transform the entire arena floor and rear wall.
Published Jul. 5, 2014

The "Marvel Universe Live" show, an ambitious collection of live stunts including everything from risky motorcycle jumps to a performer engulfed in flames, will have its world premiere in Tampa this week.

Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, Wolverine and more than two dozen other Marvel superheroes are teaming up to save the world in the stunt show that aims to transform the arena experience. But it's not all human-powered. High-tech stagecraft will put characters in movie settings among those dynamic stunts. Even the audience will get involved.

The show premieres at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on July 10 and runs through July 13 before its 85-city national tour. It is the first time Marvel has collaborated with Disney and Feld Entertainment, owners of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, to bring comic book characters to the stage. Production costs are expected to exceed $10 million, the Hollywood Reporter estimated.

And it all started in Tampa Bay.

Though development and engineering have been in the works for almost two years, cast rehearsals and training got under way in earnest in February at Feld Entertainment's massive production and rehearsal facility in Ellenton, the headquarters for the billion-dollar corporation that produces the circus, "Disney on Ice," "Monster Jam" and other live shows.

"Marvel Universe Live" is a 90-minute show full of car crashes, pyrotechnics, complex stunts and high-tech video projections that will do things like put Spider-Man and Thor on top of the Statue of Liberty to confront Green Goblin.

"What I love to do is create new genres of entertainment," said Emmy-winning director and choreographer Shanda Sawyer, whose credits range from the Miss America pageant to The World's Greatest Stunts. "We have pulled from a lot of different genres: the circus, comedy, stunts, spectacle, with very technical sets that unfold in layers with digital scenery and projection mapping."

Sawyer, as director, worked with writers Adam Wilson and Melanie Wilson LaBracio and stunt coordinator Andy Armstrong, who served in the same role for the 2011 Marvel film Thor, among others. Marvel's chief creative officer, Joe Quesada, also worked closely with Sawyer to ensure that the script held true to the Marvel stories. As fans of the Marvel movies and comic books know, it is a complex universe with characters making cameos in each others' stories.

The cast of more than 50 performers was culled from the world of martial arts, aerial performers and stunt people.

Professional snow skater and three-time X Games champ Phil Smage plays Captain America, joining WMX Pro national champion and two-time X Games winner Ashley Fiolek (Hydra Agent); 2012 X Games silver medalist Louise Forsley (Black Widow); martial arts expert and AAU Junior Olympics National Champion Kirk Jenkins (Wolverine) and the American Ninja Warrior competition show's professional course tester Eric Foster (Hawkeye).

The stakes are high for the show, and not just because major Hollywood players are behind it.

Trying to bring superheroes to life in a live show can be difficult and even dangerous, as seen in the troubled Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Several performers suffered injuries such as concussions and fractured skulls in what became the most expensive show in Broadway history.

"What they tried to do was new for them, but it's the stuff we do all the time in a lot of our businesses," CEO Kenneth Feld said when it was first announced that the circus would produce "Marvel Universe Live." He has called the show "the most ambitious undertaking in the more than 40-year history of Feld Entertainment."

Stakes are also high for devoted comic book fans, who are notoriously protective of the superhero creations.

Now we pause for a moment of insider geek-speak:

The show centers on the Cosmic Cube (the Tesseract-powered device fans will recognize from The Avengers and Captain America), shattered into pieces by Thor to protect its powers from falling into the hands of evildoers, like his brother Loki. In the show, Loki has devised a scheme to clone its powers, threatening to destroy the Earth. Marvel's mightiest, including the X-Men, Spider-Man and the Avengers, team against Loki and other supervillains — Doctor Octopus, Madame Hydra, Red Skull and Electro among them — to save the day.

Got that?

For devoted Marvel fans, the show is able to do something no movie can do because of competing studio interests and licensing agreements. So unlike the big screen, you'll be able to see Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Avengers meet up on stage.

"I like to say I'm in the business of fulfilling expectations," Sawyer said. "They come with huge expectations of how these characters are supposed to look, behave and what their powers are. I feel very responsible to Marvel fans."

Audience members can also get in on the action during the show via $25 Lectro-Link tickets purchased in advance and in addition to the admission ticket. Buyers will get a lightup wrist gizmo — a remote power source for Iron Man — and will be called on to help power him up.

One of the first challenges show developers faced, said producer Juliette Feld, who is also an executive vice president of the family-owned corporation, was coordinating the superpower diversity within the Marvel characters. Some climb walls. Some fly. Costumes had to be specially made to allow ease of movement, Feld said.

Movie-style stunts — everything from car crashes to soaring motorcycles to a dude on fire — are being created specifically for the arena. At one point, 11 whirling motorcycles fly through the air in a huge chase scene. There are more than 100 stunts, Juliette Feld said, and none of the performers have stunt doubles like film actors do.

J. Vaught, vice president of creative development for Feld Entertainment, oversaw the "projection mapping" of the show that can use any type of object or area or even the audience as a projection surface. It's similar to the way Disney World projects scenes onto Cinderella's castle, but this time it's in every direction.

"This is probably the most sophisticated and largest projection video rig ever taken out on a tour," Vaught said, and there will be no 3-D glasses necessary. "We literally travel around the world during the course of the show.

"The video alone would be quite the show, but you then add flying motorcycles and performers and explosions," Vaught said. "It's almost sensory overload."

The video mapping means that no matter where you sit, the show will look different, said Juliette Feld.

Vaught estimated it will take 25 semitrailers to move the whole show on the road and it will take 2½ days to set up at each location.

"We are inventing a new genre," Feld said. "It's like a movie brought to life."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.