Wardrobe staff keeps Marvel superheroes and villains looking good

From left, Thor, Captain America and Black Widow are among the superheroes that are a part of the cast for Marvel Universe Live! Age of Heroes, which opens Friday at the Covelli Centre. Feld Entertainment

Superheroes don’t really have pit crews or support staff, folks who make sure everything runs smoothly and fix the things that don’t.

However, those who play superheroes couldn’t do their jobs without them.

Shelby VanOphem is a wardrobe assistant in the character room with Marvel Universe Live! Age of Heroes, which opens Friday for a six-performance run at the Covelli Centre. It’s her responsibility to keep all of Groot’s vines and leaves in place and to make sure Spider-Man doesn’t split his spandex.

Graduating from Oakland University in Michigan, Van Ophem said she brought a unique skill set to the job. Her degree is in technical theater, but she also studied mechanical engineering.

“I came with some basic circuitry knowledge, and a lot of the costumes involve circuits and lights,” she said. “I maintain the electronics in the costumes.”

Those dual interests came from her parents. Mom taught her how to sew when she was 6 years old, and dad was a mechanical engineer who instilled in her an interest in cars and other gadgets.

“I liked working on cars, but it didn’t have the creative outlet that I was used to with sewing,” VanOphem said. “Theater allowed me to have that technical aspect and more creative input on what was happening.”

Age of Heroes brings together different characters from the Marvel universe, including Spider-Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy. There’s also familiar villains, such as Loki, Green Goblin and Rhino.

“Some of the characters, you won’t see them in the movies, but you might have seen a couple of them in the comic books,” she said.

Audiences have an expectation of what these characters should look like from comic books and blockbuster films. The creations of costume designer Mark Koss feature 1,000 hours of hand painting and custom-printed fabrics. To create a larger-than-life Hulk, the chest piece alone weighs 50 pounds, and Groot stands 9-and-a-half feet tall.

“They have to be able to move and do stunts on stage while still looking like their characters,” VanOphem said.

The plot involves the theft of the Wand of Watoomb, which starts releasing mystical energies that ultimately could destroy the world unless the superheroes can stop it. Its a story told with special effects, aerial moves, pyrotechnics, martial arts and motorcycle stunts.

“With a live stunt show like this, it’s so easy to get hurt if you’re not paying attention to your surroundings,” she said. “They have to gauge, ‘Is is safe for me to do this flip? Will I injure somebody?’ The audience might not notice if someone doesn’t do a jump or a roll. They’re able to cover with other choreo.”

VanOphem said it’s not just the performers who dress up. Many of the children come looking like their favorite characters.

“There was a little girl who came in full face paint for Gamora (from ‘Guardians’),” she said. “She was screaming her little heart out. It was so adorable.”

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