Every Monday, after he wakes up in a new city, Doctor Strange goes shopping. Marvel's master of the mystic arts looks for a grocery store, or maybe some kind of big box retailer like Walmart, and then buys in bulk: snacks and candy, fruits and nuts, coffee and soda.
The little makeshift cafe, his Snacktum Sanctorum, is a godsend to his fellow Avengers, especially Captain America, who is allergic to gluten and dairy and can't really cook for himself on the road. And while Thor maintains a simple diet of oatmeal, eggs, and rice and beans, his tolerance for blandness developed over years spent in the forests of Norway, if he's interested in branching out, the Sorcerer Supreme also does meal prep and seems very willing to share.
It's a convenience store Stark Tower, a meeting place for Earth's Mightiest Heroes before they go and save the world, which they do once per night on Thursday and Friday, then three times on Saturday and certain Sundays. Because Doctor Strange is played by an actor named Kevin Myrick, the DIY coffee stand, set up in a spare room in the bowels of that week's arena, has become known as "Kevin-11" to the cast and crew that visit during breaks in rehearsals and performances.
"I take over a room and spread out, I've got a couple crates and some refrigerators," he explains. "When you're here for a full day, people are in makeup and busy and don't have time to run and grab something to eat. Everyone comes through, everyone knows me."
Myrick is bald and dons a wig to play Doctor Strange, but it's unlikely that he'd be noticed during his public shopping runs even if the coif was all natural (though he probably would get weird looks). But he has played the character more than anyone else, and to many kids who live within driving distance of mid-sized to major arenas, he is Doctor Strange. While the comic book company's big screen heroes will assemble in an immensely anticipated blockbuster movie crossover later this month, this version of the squad has already been making tracks across the world in an arena tour called Marvel Universe Live!. It's equal parts stage drama, circus event and Disney on Ice, put on by the company behind those nomadic extravaganzas.
Produced in conjunction with Marvel by Feld Entertainment, the Sarasota area-based company that also tours Disney on Ice, the show involves over 40 performers and about 100 traveling cast and crew. The show tours the country ten months out of the year, spending generally a week or so in each city, providing children with the thrill of seeing their heroes in the flesh and spandex (and furry suit). Marvel Universe Live! puts on between six and eight performances a week, energetic and somewhat (knowingly) campy performances of a story pieced together mostly from comic books, with familiar flourishes borrowed from the billion-dollar movies. It is, in a sense, a canonical love-child, though you can see more of the books in the actual plot.
"We're always trying to stay as true to the comics as possible," explains the show's casting director, Jessica Ferris. "That's our priority first and foremost and that is the intent of Marvel."
Feld is actually on its second iteration of the show; this one, subtitled Age of Heroes, is a sequel to an initial show that launched in 2014. The cast mixes and matches superheroes from several teams and eras, with the original core of movie Avengers (minus Hawkeye, of course) joined by the Wasp, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and this time around, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther. The dynamic is similar to the characters' relationships in the movies, though the wisecracks that boom over the arena PA — and there are plenty of them, from the Guardians and Spider-Man in particular — are a bit more family-friendly.
Over the course of the show's hour and a half runtime, different factions of this intellectual property dream team chase after the trickster villain Loki, who is hot after the all-powerful Wand of Watoomb, a magical MacGuffin that would help him control (or destroy) the universe. The chase is really just an excuse to zip stunt performers around on wires, send motorcycles circling around the show floor, shoot off modest pyrotechnics, and stage hand-to-hand fights that are impressive in their synchronization with "bam!" sound effects that boom on the arena sound system.
It's an incredibly energetic and busy show, with explosions and bicycle kicks and stunts going on all over the place, and because you're watching it all at once, unlike a movie that cuts from shot-to-shot, the scale and coordination are on full display.
For the young geek set, it's an experience akin to watching a pro athlete in person, even if you can clearly see the wires and harnesses; there's something about being up close, even when that reveals the facade of the fiction, that makes your heroes more real. And when you're a kid, it's totally OK — preferred, even — to eat an expensive snow cone from a mug that looks like the head of the hero that is out traipsing around before your very eyes. It only adds to the immersion. We eat this stuff up any way we can.
SYFY WIRE spent time backstage before a recent performance of Marvel Universe Live! at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum to observe the monumental effort that goes into both putting on the production and moving it from city to city. Here's what we found.
Wanting to join a traveling circus of spandex-wearing actors and stunt performers — and thus willfully diving headfirst into an endless loop of physical exhaustion and dead-of-the-night relocation — is a relatively insane aspiration. And yet, Feld has well over 1000 would-be superheroes try out for the show each year. The company holds quarterly auditions as part of a proactive search designed to make sure there's always a Black Panther or Groot on call, in case of injury or other absence.
Management would prefer to always have three performers for each character, because oftentimes the same hero winds up performing a variety of stunts that, for a single person to pull off, would necessitate an array of skills that would make any superhero... at least nod in appreciation. The show has acrobats, dancers, combat pros and motorcycle riders, and characters like Spider-Man windup riding and flying and fighting, which makes casting an exhausting task — both for the Feld staff and the prospective superhero actors.
"The riders are without a doubt the most difficult to cast, because the specific tricks that we're executing in every single show are only done by a very small percentage of people in the world," Ferris says. "In addition to being able to do those skills, they have to appear like the character. They have to be great representations of these characters and what the fans are expecting to see."
The audition is a gauntlet, sometimes lasting upwards of eight hours without a break. "We are grilling them and putting them through a series of different types of challenges throughout that timeframe," Ferris says. "Often times the audition venue is not air-conditioned, so it can be 100 degrees in there. And if they have the stamina to get through an entire audition day, they are likely candidates to be able to do a three-show day on tour."
Justin Jackson, who plays Captain America in all non-motorcycle scenes, spent a year waiting to audition. He was living in Orlando with his brother Antonio, where they worked in shows at SeaWorld and Universal Studios, when Antonio got cast as Iron Man for Marvel Universe Live's initial season. Justin wanted in, but had to wait for tryouts to come back around to central Florida. Once he got his crack at the show, he quickly learned how intense his brother's life had become.
The audition began with basic movement tests — front rolls, back rolls, stunt falling — and then went on to fight choreography, with auditioners asked to learn, rehearse, and execute a hand-to-hand combat scene.
When Feld asked to see any special skills, Jackson performed Capoeira, a style of Brazilian martial arts that combines fighting, dancing, and other performative athletics that makes 99% of other humans feel insecure in their bodies. It was a smart choice; being able to shadow box and sell taking a punch from the Hulk is obviously one of the most crucial elements for getting a job as a main cast member.
It definitely boosted Gjermund Gjesme's prospects that he had become certified in stage combat while studying acting in New York, but in his particular case, it was even more helpful that he was a former elite soldier in the Norwegian army who looked exactly like Thor. That such a perfect candidate for the role would wind up at that audition is incredibly fortuitous, like getting hit by lightning sent by the god of thunder, but also the result of an exceedingly simple chain of events, at least in his telling of the story.
"I'd been lugging hundred pounds of equipment out in the forest in Norway in minus 40 degrees for two years, and I figured, what would be the opposite of doing this that would be exciting?" Gjesme recalls thinking several years prior. "And I figured moving to New York would be a pretty good thing."
Not everyone in the cast is a newcomer. Myrick spent five years on the road playing princes for Disney Live — his background is as a dancer — and after a year or so of living in Las Vegas and Las Vegas alone, he was getting antsy; a singular address did not suit him, so he reconnected with Feld for their next project.
"I think I'd had enough of living in one place, so I was ready to get back on the road," he remembers. "The audition came to Vegas, where I was living. I showed up and got my butt kicked for about eight hours, and here I am now."
Not every role is so conveniently filled; as it stands, there's only one person in the cast who can perform Spider-Man's backflips, making the web-slinger's every move even more of a high-wire act.
There is a staff athletic trainer that travels with the cast, and injuries do happen. Jackson initially played Loki, and when he donned the star-spangled tights to play Captain America, he found that tossing the shield was hell on his shoulder and rotator cuff until he made adjustments to his workout regimen. But most injuries happen off-site, or are at least more likely to, when riders and athletes are trying different gyms, hiking, and practicing their motorcycle stunts on wherever they can find land rugged and empty enough for that kind of loud, hazardous rehearsal.
Finding that kind of hog sanctuary is an ongoing effort emblematic of life on the road with this show: at times difficult, but rewarded with sweet wheelies and some kind of new adventure. All told, the tour will cover nearly 17,000 miles this go-round, traversed on busses, planes (for trips over 550 miles) and the occasional Uber ride to the arena.
"All of our performers live in a perpetual state of adjusting every week to whatever the environment is," Ferris says. "They are reinventing their lives every week, switching hotels, trying to maintain their nutrition and fitness level and working out on the road."
They have to get creative, and have a trainer who helps piece together workout plans in each new town. Sometimes, they offer the managers of the local gyms tickets to the show in exchange for free use of their facilities. Stadium steps can be used for conditioning, as can local parks when they're visiting warmer cities. It changes every week, which requires its own kind of built-up stamina.
Some love it — Myrick couldn't wait to get back on the road, and no longer has a permanent address, opting instead to keep his car at his parents' home. Gjesme, who sublets his New York apartment to a friend, has gotten to see most of America for the first time; the first few days in each new city can be used for sightseeing, and visiting Colorado was a particular thrill because it reminded him of Norway. It's hard for him, without any family in the United States, and he's thinking about returning to New York after this season to pursue other acting opportunities, maybe on Broadway or TV. Still, this is the best job he's had thus far in his young career.
The Jackson brothers, meanwhile, are obvious roommates, making each new hotel feel a little more like home. Everyone has to bunk up on the road, unless they want to pay for their own room. It's not quite the accommodations offered to stars on the Avengers: Infinity War world tour that is currently winding its way around the globe, but that's life on the road.
Spend any amount of time with the people of Marvel Universe Live!, and it starts to sound a bit like an Olive Garden commercial: when you're here, you're family. People say time and again that castmates and the crew have become their surrogate family, and sometimes, it becomes even more intimate. In an effort to keep performers and crew on board and invested in the show year after year, Feld has taken the unusual position of encouraging office romance.
"That is inconsistent with most companies' policy, but we support it and we encourage it because these folks really do live on tour. And if we're restricting them from having personal connections with the people that they work with, we're going to eliminate people from remaining with us on tour," Ferris explains, noting that the policy is more reminiscent of old circus traditions, which begat generations of performers. "We have had lots of weddings, many relationships between cast and crew, cast-to-cast, cast-to-staff and it's not a negative in our environment at all. What it does is it promotes healthy balanced relationships that are supported, that people can sustain while having this touring lifestyle which is very uncommon."
Stability is important, because Marvel Universe Live! is a large production that becomes exponentially bigger when factoring in its nomadic nature.
As of late March, there were 93 cast and crew members traveling with the production, which also brings in local laborers to help with the heavy lifting in each city. And there is a lot of heavy lifting, with massive props, scaffolding, motorcycles, rehearsal equipment and costumes that must be moved in, out and around the arenas, where loading docks and transportation facilities are not all created equal. For the record, the docks at Nassau Coliseum, situated in the middle of a massive parking lot just off an expressway roundabout, are decent enough.
The bland basement prep space at the Coliseum was filled with boxes as far as the eye could see, which seemed to be about the size of an Arena League football field; the show schleps around 20 large cases for costumes alone, according to Rebecca Williams, the wardrobe coordinator. All told, there are over 750 costume pieces for the 140 costumes worn by the 43 cast members, masks and chest plates and boots and smaller gadgets and rigs that get assembled and stripped off actors throughout the show; some that work in the ensemble wear upwards of six per performance, trading the spandex and harnesses that come with superpowers for the thin protection of anonymous and disposable henchmen.
Actors are responsible for keeping their costumes in presentable condition, but all the acrobatics often lead to mid-show stitch-up jobs and repairs done on the fly. "I've stitched up more than one butt in my time," Williams offers.
Feld, which for years operated the Ringling Brothers circus, has streamlined local delivery of the spectacular into a precise routine. And yet, even with every financial incentive to hasten the process, it takes two days to set up the Marvel show, from arrival at the next arena to finishing touches on the set.
There's just no getting around the numbers and scope of the project. There are 336 light fixtures, 13 doors, and 23 projectors with which they project the background setting of each scene — a city, a hidden volcano, an alien planet — on a 40-foot wall they construct at the end of the arena floor. But nothing in the foreground can be done in CGI — not the fights, not the motorcycle chases, not the giant tree or talking raccoon who are subsequently far closer in size on earth than in the movies.
Kids likely don't notice that discrepancy, and for the adults in the audience, it's a minor note soon forgotten as the show moves forward. It also makes the superhero more human, which is, explicitly or not, the entire purpose of going to a show like this. It's not about being transported, but having the superhero exist in our more grounded reality.
Marvel Universe Live! Age of Heroes continues its run through 2019.