'Marvel Universe LIVE!' show is a superhero homecoming

CorrespondentJuly 17, 2014 

  • Details

    What: Marvel Universe LIVE!

    When: 7 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday

    Where: PNC Arena, 1400 Edwards Mill Road, Raleigh

    Cost: $30-$60

    Info: 919-861-2300 or thepncarena.com

This weekend, “Marvel Universe LIVE!” comes to Raleigh’s PNC Arena. The pyrotechnics-and-stunts spectacular features Marvel superheroes brought to life by actors, live special effects, and – in the case of the Hulk – an 8-foot-tall suit powered by two car batteries. All told, there are 25 characters, played by 53 performers.

Some play multiple roles: Joseph Cox, 33, spends a portion of each show playing bad-guy foot soldiers – as such cannon fodder, he’s forever getting knocked off tall platforms, just to climb back up again and rejoin the fight. As winged superhero Falcon, Cox showcases his aerialist and acrobatic talents. His most recognizable role, though, may be as S.H.I.E.L.D. commander Nick Fury.

“That’s a lot of stunt driving, flipping cars – really just sort of a take-charge, commanding presence onstage,” Cox says. Samuel L. Jackson played Nick Fury in 2012’s “The Avengers” and other Marvel films, and Cox has taken the celebrated actor’s lead. “That’s what I’m channeling here, trying to bring that energy and that presence to the role.”

Hillside homecoming

Yet, for Cox, the Raleigh stop is a homecoming. He spent much of his childhood in Durham, and he traces the beginnings of his career to teachers at Hillside High School. They showed him that dancing and acting could be his livelihood, which led him to take his talents seriously.

Today, Cox is a professional performer, living on the road and traveling with high-profile shows like “Marvel Universe LIVE!” and, previously, “The Lion King” Broadway musical – and he owes it all to a handful of local educators.

“I had some strong teachers who had a lot of faith in me and my abilities and encouraged me to pursue more serious training,” Cox says. Drama director Wendell Tabb gave his students practical lessons in professionalism, while dance instructor Lisa Wilder recognized Cox’s potential. “She was really a solid foundation where I hadn’t had any before. I wasn’t really interested in pursuing arts as a career before that.”

‘A triple threat’

Tabb, who still heads Hillside’s drama program, regularly takes students overseas to perform. He ensures they know what to expect in auditions, and he encourages them to diversify their talents; in his productions, no one is just an actor, but students also fill director, stage manager, or costume designer roles. This way, they have multiple skills.

“I trained them to be able to, as an artist, work for themselves,” Tabb says.

Cox took Tabb’s lessons to heart, and cultivated a broad skill set. Accordingly, his roles in “Marvel Universe LIVE!” require acting, high-flying acrobatics, stage combat and stunt driving. Cox’s earlier work with Dolly Parton’s “Pirates Voyage” in Myrtle Beach, S.C., involved high dives and swordfights, while “The Lion King,” as a musical, required yet another subset of his skills.

“Not only is he a talented actor, but he is an amazing singer and dancer,” Tabb recalls. “He was what we would call a triple threat.”

Cox holds a bachelor’s degree in contemporary dance from the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem but also has a background in martial arts. With that schooling and experience, the stage combat and the physically demanding stunts required for “Marvel Universe LIVE!” come naturally to him.

“I’m really comfortable with that, but also the high falls and falling stunts, aerial work,” he says. “You have to have a certain level of physicality coming into it and then once you have that, you use that and it maintains itself.” During a show’s run, then, he doesn’t necessarily have to spend hours in the gym – rather, the performance is his workout.

In superhero mode

Today, Cox effectively lives on the road. This, too, feels natural, both from traveling as a kid and with Tabb’s drama program. Cox’s brother still lives in Durham, and so do his high school friends. He’s excited to share with them what he’s done since high school.

At Hillside, though, the door is always open for Cox to come back and see his old teacher; arts alumni are always welcome. “The students who are there love that,” Tabb says. It’s helpful for them to see how Hillside’s drama program can translate to a performing arts career. Joe has been one of those students who has returned back.”

And why not? After all, his career arc is a Hillside success story. From the drama program there to the School of the Arts, and from “The Lion King” musical to “Pirates Voyage,” even a major franchise like Marvel wasn’t out of his league.

“It wasn’t much of a leap to push into superhero mode,” he says.

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