At long last the embattled musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, has finally opened. While I have followed the travails of the show in the media over the past six months, I have not seen any previous incarnations. Therefore, my review is based solely on my attendance at the official press night earlier this month.
So, what is the verdict? Has all those months or reworking, rewrites, restaging, reimagining, re-this, and re-that produced a hit or miss? Spider-Man, unfortunately, fails as a fully developed Broadway musical. I would classify it more as a Las Vegas spectacular or a Cirque de Soleil extravaganza. The story is banal, the characters are two-dimensional; and the score by Bono and The Edge of the rock super group, U2, is solemn with few unmemorable songs and too many overarching power ballads.
The plot follows the birth of the Spider-Man character—young Peter Parker, visiting a genetic engineering research firm, is accidentally bitten by a radioactive spider, thus enhancing the geeky high school student with superhuman powers. At the same time his body is undergoing such drastic physical and emotional change Parker is dealing with the death of his beloved uncle; his relationship with would-be girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson; and how to rid New York City of a small army of genetically created monsters, wrecking havoc around The Big Apple.
The cast is satisfactory with Reeve Carney as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Jennifer Damiano as the love of his life, Mary Jane, notable primarily because they are on stage most often. Carney, brooding and contemplative, tries to salvage his role, but with the mostly rewritten book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (original librettists Glen Berger and Julie Taymor are also credited) more a life-like depiction of a Spider-Man comic book there is no way Carney, as well as any cast member, can develop true, emotionally well-rounded characters.
The score by Bono and The Edge is not up to the ususal U2 standards. I doubt any of the numbers would have made the final cut for one of their multi-platinum selling albums. The songs are rather cheerless and moody pieces. Yes, the two are newcomers to the Broadway stage and with all the disarray swirling around the development of the production they could be given a break. But trying to write a Broadway score long distance—the group was touring Australia and New Zealand during a good amount of time during the show’s gestation period—proved to be an unsuccessful formula.
The director or, as he is billed in the Playbill, “Creative Consultant,” (ousted director, Julie Taymor, is still listed as “Original Direction by”) Philip McKinley has a background in Broadway musicals, but is better known as conceiving and directing multiple editions of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s The Greatest Show on Earth. This experience serves him well in supervising the aerial daredevilry and stunts (more on that later). But the direction of the non-high-flying portions of the show are matter-of-fact and are only salvaged by George Tsypin’s imaginative and striking sets (again, more later). The choreography, by Daniel Ezralow and Chase Brock, which could potentially inject life into the musical, is lackluster and uninspired.
So, what’s positive about the show? The backdrops, scenery and projections are superb (you know a production is in trouble when that’s its most outstanding feature). If the rest of the musical was half as good, Spider-Man would be a smash hit. Viewing certain set pieces unfold into buildings and neighborhoods; moveable parts assemble around the stage, giving breadth and depth to the city; and large stage encompassing projections utilized to heighten the fear and terror brought forth by the super-villain, The Green Goblin and his henchmen, you can begin to understand why Spider-Man is the most expensive show in Broadway history. One of the more striking scenes is when the two teenagers are walking home, after Peter Parker has been roughed up at school, and as they head through their rundown streets the neighborhood scenery unfolds and changes via the pages of an oversized picture book. In “Bouncing Off the Walls,” the soon-to-be Spider-man begins to discover his new powers and, literally, begins to climb and bounce off the walls of his room. It is a simple, but effective scene.
Lastly, there are the high-flying aerial derring-dos, what the musical has infamously become known for during all these months leading up to its opening night. The aerial design and rigging by Scott Rogers and Jaque Paquin is impressive—up to a point. After a while the wow factor begins to fade as the jumping and ricocheting around inside the interior of the Foxwoods Theatre becomes a bit tiring. Even the climatic battle scene, played out above the audience, between Spider-Man and The Green Goblin wears thin rather quickly.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a lightweight entertainment spectacle more three-ring circus then Broadway musical.