TAMPA — It's hard to top “the greatest show on Earth,” but that's not stopping Feld Entertainment from taking a crack at it.
The Ellenton-based, live-entertainment behemoth behind Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice, Monster Jam, Nuclear Cowboyz and other big-spectacle arena shows is set to debut its biggest yet — “Marvel Universe Live!”
The show, under development for nearly two years, makes its premiere Thursday through Sunday at the Forum before taking Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, the X-Men and a couple dozen other costumed heroes and villains to 85 cities around the globe.
Months of rehearsals appeared to have paid off at Tuesday's preview at the Forum, where the show was performed in front of an audience for the first time. Feld executive vice president Juliette Feld took the floor before the start to warn the crowd that some elements might appear unfinished during the second-to-last dress rehearsal, but the show went off smoothly and the roaring crowd seemed to have loved it.
It's not only the “most technically complex” and “most ambitious” production in Feld's history — no small feat when your business is elephant-filled circuses and car-crushing monster trucks — it's the start of a whole new genre of live entertainment, its creators said.
“In terms of a touring, live production, the scope and scale is larger than anything that has ever been done before by anyone, not just us,” Feld vice president of show operations and creative development J. Vaught said.
It's also the most expensive production in Feld's history, costing in the tens of millions of dollars, said Feld, who declined to get more specific.
That investment has gone toward developing a show Feld calls “completely prototypical,” meaning the special effects technology it uses was either created specifically for the show or is being used in a way it has never been before.
The digital projections that allow characters to seamlessly travel between settings such as the Avenger's tower and Loki's fortress are similar to what was seen at the London Olympics' opening ceremony, except instead of being projected on just the floor, they're on the floor, in the air and on a three-story-tall wall that sets a record for the largest projection surface ever built, the company said.
A full-size Hulk will come alive through an actor inside a massive apparatus invented for the show and powered by a pair of car batteries. The 8-foot-6 green beast will use special velocity stilts that allow him to bound over long distances, with hands that can be manipulated into fists for smashing a car, among other things, and a fully-articulated range of facial expressions, Feld said.
The original story for the show was co-written by director and concept creator Shanda Sawyer, in close cooperation with Marvel's chief creative officer Joe Quesada.
The story begins with Asgardian god Thor destroying the Cosmic Cube in order to protect humanity from its power, only to have his evil brother Loki collect the dust from its shattering to create his own cube. When the heroes discover the threat, they team up to recover the cube shards, which have fallen into the hands of some of the most iconic villains of the Marvel universe, including the Green Goblin, Red Skull and the Sinister Six.
While the finer details of the plot are being kept secret until the premiere, Sawyer said every character gets a big moment, from an aerial battle with Spider-Man and Green Goblin circling the Statue of Liberty, to a Chitauri attack on Nick Fury and Maria Hill that leads to a live-action car chase with crashes and explosions on the arena floor. Wolverine will claw his way through an army of foes, and Black Widow will performs aerial stunts on a motorcycle.
“There's no action for action's sake, but it's told through action. The story is completely integral to the action,” said Sawyer, who was instrumental in adding storylines to Feld's circus shows for the first time in 2006. “I think one thing about marvel fans we know is they love a good complicated, dense, story.”
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Almost the entire production has come together at Feld Entertainment's cavernous, 580,000-square-foot Ellenton headquarters, about 40 miles south of Tampa. That close proximity is why the show, which requires 25 trucks to move between cities, is debuting at the Forum in downtown Tampa.
Since April, 23 hours per day, six days per week have been dedicated to rehearsals and technical work for “Marvel Universe Live!” there.
The Ellenton building, large enough to allow two arena shows to rehearse on full sets simultaneously, is the second largest in the state (behind NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building, which once housed the space shuttle), according to the company.
The company moved into the headquarters in 2012, where hundreds of people work producing video, building props, sets, circus rail cars, monster trucks and costumes. The facility houses dozens of monster trucks and more than 10,000 circus costumes dating back decades, according to The Associated Press.
Feld Entertainment, started by Feld's grandfather in 1967, has owned Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus longer than the actual Ringling brothers, Barnum or Bailey, she said.
Along with her two sisters, she's part of the third generation working for the family-owned business under her father, chief executive officer Kenneth Feld.
The company has produced Disney on Ice since 1981, and that longstanding relationship helped form the partnership with Disney-owned Marvel, Juliette Feld said. In September, the new “Disney on Ice Presents Frozen” tour kicks off, based on the Oscar-winning “Frozen,” the highest-grossing animated film of all time.
The privately-held company does not disclose financial information, but Forbes estimated the company's 2013 revenue at $1 billion. About 30 million people attend one of Feld's 5,000 shows each year.
Those numbers could grow even larger if “Marvel Universe Live!” succeeds in gaining an audience beyond the hard-core motorsport fans and young children that Feld's motocross, monster truck and Disney shows attract.
Still, despite the size and investment, Juliette Feld said there's no special pressure for the Marvel show to succeed.
“We don't do anything we don't intend to be a huge success,” she said. “That doesn't work for us as a business.”