James Hadley. Photo: Courtesy James Hadley

James Hadley knows how to create the wow factor in theatrical events.

Hadley spent many years in Las Vegas as the senior artistic director responsible for Cirque de Soleil’s gravity-defying shows, including  Mystère, O, and The Beatles’ LOVE. In the last few months, he has focused on directing the show Marvel Universe Live! Age of Heroes, where Spiderman, the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy perform heart-stopping aerial acrobatics as they fly through the air. The show opens at the Oracle Arena on Friday before moving to San Jose.

Yet when Hadley, a Berkeley resident, walks by the shuttered Oaks Theater at the top of Solano Avenue, he feels a tug on his heart. It’s not an arena, it doesn’t have flashing or strobe lights, and there is not enough ceiling height for a trapeze. Hadley is used to putting on shows in spaces 100 times its size. Yet the 49-year old can’t help wondering “what if?”

“It makes me so sad because it’s such a great old theater,” said Hadley. “Every time I walk by I think ‘what could go in there? What would be successful in there? I don’t know, but I know there must be something because people long for a sense of community that comes from a live performance.”

For most of his life, ever since he was a young boy growing up in Montreal dreaming about the bright lights of Broadway, Hadley has seen – and lived – the world through a theatrical lens. A dancer and actor who performed with the National Ballet of Canada, he landed his first Broadway gig in 1993 when he was 21 in the show The Red Shoes. The glory was short-lived.

“It was a classic New York story,” said Hadley. “We opened on Thursday. We closed on Sunday. The reviews were not great.”

His next job was with the musical Cats, and needless to say, that lasted a lot longer. Hadley performed in the blockbuster production on and off for about four years, leaving intermittently to be in other plays and musicals, including the touring companies of Chicago and A Chorus Line.  He eventually went into the creative side of the theater, working for many years in Las Vegas for Cirque de Soleil.  Five hundred million people viewed a production he directed in 2015, the closing ceremony for The National Olympic Committee’s European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan. Hadley oversaw 3,000 artists and musical acts in a huge multi-media performance.

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Hadley moved to Berkeley about four years ago to be closer to his partner, Jay Keasling, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UC Berkeley. “We had to decide at one point if he was going to move to Las Vegas or I was going to move to Berkeley,” said Hadley. “Berkeley won out. There is not a lot of scientific research in Las Vegas.”

The couple has a home in the Thousand Oaks neighborhood. They spend a lot of time walking around, which is why Hadley passes the Oaks Theater on an almost daily basis, he said.

For the past few months, Hadley’s focus has been on the Marvel show. Feld Entertainment, the world’s leading producer of live touring family entertainment, hired Hadley to help envision the show, from the story-line to the actions of the 43 actors and performers. Figuring out the plot was tricky, but crucial, for a family entertainment spectacle in which many audience members are familiar with the characters, he said. In the show, Spider Man, The Avengers, and the Guardians of the Galaxy, including Star-Lord, Gamora, Groot, Rocket, and Drax, have to defend the universe from evil launched by Nebula, Loki, and the Green Goblin.

The superheroes featured in Marvel Universe Live! Age of Heroes. Photo: Feld Entertainment

The show is visually arresting as characters fly through the air and battle one another – acrobatically – on the ground. They tumble and fight using choreographed moves that blend martial arts, parkour, dance, gymnastics and aerial acrobatics. Motorcyclists launch off ramps. Flames erupt. There are special effects as well as 150 different costumes for the show. Different videos are projected around the arena, meaning each seat provides a unique vantage point.

The show is so large and complex that it not only required a director but someone to choreograph the fights, a flight director to figure out the aerial moves, and an action director to design the stunts, along with a writer, composer, costume designer, and a lighting and a production designer.

We wanted to figure out “how could we best illustrate their superpowers?” said Hadley. “We wanted to make sure we had some who could fly, and some who could do acrobatics and some who had mystical powers.”

Hadley has been directing ambitious productions for about 25 years, but the bar keeps getting set higher.

“We are always saying ‘what is the wow factor?’” he said in a video made by his management company. “What are people going to be amazed by? For me, that’s the struggle, trying to not stay complacent and look for what’s new, what’s fresh what’s going to make people excited and say ‘wow, I’ve never seen this before.’”

Marvel Universe Live! Age of Heroes debuted in Los Angeles on July 7. Hadley’s work with the project is done – there is an onsite director who travels with the show – but Hadley is planning to bring friends and family to see the production when it opens in Oakland on Friday. The production then travels to San Jose until Aug. 20 and then goes to another 61 cities. It will run through March 2019.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...