Spider-Man, an Ok (not Super) Hero

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Reeve Carney in a scene from “SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark” © Jacob Cohl

How It’s New York:  Not only did the New York Post’s Michael Riedel have way too much fun with the long delays, injuries and troubles the $75 million dollar show incurred, one of the funniest New Yorker covers I’ve seen in years showed a bunch of different Spider-Men in traction.  And, then there was the episode of Law & Order:  Criminal Intent which clearly was inspired by the troubled show (here’s The Daily Beast on it!), involving an actor dead due to a bad aerial trick, music by a rock star named Arno, and a female director doing something with Greek myth (there were at one points a lot of mythic overtones in the show).  The dramaturg, Yale trained, turned out to be the villain, but my favorite, and most silly moment, was when the director said she hired him because the producers couldn’t afford hers.  Anybody know what dramaturgs make?  Hint.  Not a deal breaker for a Broadway producer.  Ever.  At any point.  And going with a sub dramaturg is kind of like going with a sub editor– you just wouldn’t, it’s too sensitive.
How It’s Irish:  Bono and the Edge did the music, and there are U2 shout-outs in a couple of places (embarrassing, honestly, but they are there).  Co-blogger Lucy Healy-Kelly attended with me.  She had seen the earlier incarnation of the show, back when there was a “Geek chorus.”  I thought the first act seemed long, but she said compared to what it used to be, this was a PowerPoint presentation!  You’ll hear a little of us discussing the show in the next podcast.

Here’s the review I did for Baristanet:

Spider-Man Flies but Does Not Soar

BY  |  Monday, Jul 11, 2011 8:54am  |  COMMENTS (1)
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(l-r) Patrick Page and Reeve Carney in a scene from “SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark” © Jacob Cohl

Wow, the last 20 minutes of this show are fun! The set’s perspective shifts so that we seem to be on high in the air looking down from the top of the Chrysler building, as Spidey (the role is played by Reeve Carney, but there are a whole team of Spidey aerialists, and I can’t say with certainty which were flying when) and his nemesis the Green Goblin (Patrick Page) battle it out.  Spidey soars through the house, touching down to give a high-five to a child on the aisle (he high-fived a little boy at the performance I went to twice; the kid was glowing like a lightbulb as he exited).    The music soars and we end on a reprise of the show’s strongest number “Rise Above.”  My companion was humming it as she exited.
That all sounds like a big thumbs up, no?  Humming a song, great ending, happy kids?  But it isn’t really.  Nor is it a big thumbs down.  I’m pretty firmly in the “thumb in the middle” here.  If you’ve got family coming to visit and need something big and bright to entertain the kids, and show off Broadway spectacle, you could do worse than bring the fam to Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark The sets (by George Tsypin) are bold and impressive; the costumes (Eiko IIshioko; Masks Julie Taymor) inventive; the  aerial tricks (aerial design Scott Rogers) at times are truly breathtaking.


Tourist attraction, yes. After all, the show got loads of press with its 183 previews, actor injuries, and  ousting of original director and bookwriter (with Glen Berger) Julie Taymor (who maintains an “Original Direction” credit in the program).  The direction was taken over by Philip William McKinley; the book now includes playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.  Aguirre-Sacasa also writes Marvel comic books. And that the show cost about $75million dollars makes it sort of a Titanic-like event.

(l-r) Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano in a scene from “SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark” © Jacob Cohl

But as rewarding theatre for its own sake — not so much.  At times I found myself thinking wistfully of the old Spider-Man cartoonthat used to run on Saturday mornings, with its earworm of a theme, that I used to play with stand partner Joe Marley in high school orchestra as a warm-up.  The animation was a little primitive, and people’s lips rarely moved; Spidey would be on top of a building and we’d hear a voiceover as he looked down.  But the colors were bright, the music great, and the simple story always wrapped up each time, with no irony or larger philosophical point beyond “it’s bad to be bad.”
Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, the musical, takes way too much time to get us to the showdown.  It spends a lot of time on the Spidey creation myth; i.e., how high school student Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider; how the gentle scientist who created it turns himself into the mad Green Goblin (both played by Peter Page) and forces his band of scientists to turn into mutant villains; how Peter Parker takes the identity of Spider-Man to win a wrestling match.  With all that time on the origins of the superhero,   the central conflict of the story (Spider-Man against Green Goblin) doesn’t begin until late in the day.  Let’s face it, it’s just way more interesting to watch a superhero go after a baddy than it is to watch en emo teen struggling with his inner spider.  It’s as if Star Wars gave us an hour of Luke Skywalker on Tatooine.  Let’s get to the Death Star already.
Many of the songs, with music and lyrics by Bono and the Edge, are pretty catchy.  That my friend found herself humming “Rise Above” has a lot to do with that song being one of the few to be reprised properly.  You can see them coming at you like the light of a faraway train (oh, here’s the “boy loves girl” number; here’s the “I don’t know who I am” number), a fault pretty common with people who don’t work a lot in musical theatre.  But as the chorus repeats many of them become really fun — and then we never hear them again.  Case in point, “A Freak Like Me Needs Company,” the Green Goblin’s justification for creating his mutant buddies The Sinister Six, was really fun and reprise worthy.  Still, the U2 flavor of a bunch of songs didn’t always serve the show, and shout-outs to the band were silly:  Peter’s rival, high school bully Flash (Matt Caplan, very blonde because since Draco Malfoy, this signals evil, I guess) drives his love Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano) in a convertible playing an old U2 song.  There’s a reference to “Bloody Sunday.”  And so on. Also many of the lyrics are pretty wooden, if not strange — one of Peter’s songs includes the odd line “I go to sleep in my clothes,” as evidence of his mental unrest. The handset mics the actors work do not help at all, and Mary Jane’s was particularly distracting, as if she were going to ask for your Happy Meal preference in a minute.  And during the pretty teen sweetheart ballad “If The World Should End” I mentally went on vacation, because I could, since it told us nothing we didn’t already know.
Songs for the spider goddess Arachne (T.V. Carpio) sound as though written for Sinead O’Connor, and I’m not sure why Arachne sounds quasi-Arabic.  She’s in the play mostly  as a dream figure encouraging Peter (he talked about her in a high school presentation on spiders, before he got bitten himself).  She also sings the title song, “Turn Off the Dark.”  It’s pretty, and Carpio has a lovely voice (it can’t be easy to sing hanging upside down) but I have no idea what it means.  Something about not being afraid, or bringing light?  It isn’t clear.  A little bit of enigma is nice in a rock song but not so much in a Broadway musical title song.
Hugely annoying to me is the way the the show waffled about its period.  All of the adults dressed as if they were in the ’50s or earlier (Peter’s aunt has a grey bun, for Pete’s sake), and it looks like the ’40s in the newsroom of the Daily Bugle, with a team of stenographers and rotary phones.  Children will be wondering what the typewriters are.   So then why does editor J. Jonah Jameson (Michael Mulheren) give a speech about the competition from bloggers and the internet?  Why does the cardboard camera Peter carries (he supposedly is a photographer with access to Spidey; it’s never explained how he gets pictures of himself) come straight from the 60s?  It’s as if the show creators don’t think we’d get the comic-bookness of it all without this, despire the exaggerated costumes and bright colors.
Kyle Cooper’s projections are impressive, but somehow not nearly so exhilerating as the spectacle of last season’s American Idiot, which managed to surprise me constantly.  Similarly, Daniel Ezralow and Chase Brock’s choreography is never more than serviceable,  a shame, because you can tell that the dancer onstage are really good– but they never get a chance to cut loose in a big way.  And the aerial tricks aren’t going to thrill adults as much as children because it’s really obvious they’re being done by multiple people in Spidey suits– heck you can see them in the wings waiting to go when one is flying, and they’re not even remotely the same size.   .
As for the cast, only Patrick Page as the Green Goblin really delights.  He’s got the funniest lines, but also a true hammy charisma that is fun to watch (as is his frustration with voicemail in Act 2).  As Spidey, Carney is serviceable, with a  nice voice, but rather bland (and the whole trope of his having glasses making everyone think this young Adonis is nerdy is just as silly as when it’s used on girls).  Damiano as his girlfriend projects a maturity, or maybe a modernity, that jars a bit, though she sings sweetly enough.
But there is that last twenty minutes of pure excitement.  And the final moment is smart.  It suggests that Episode 2 might even be better, if they can raise another $70 mill.
Information and tickets at the Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark website.

1 Comments

  1. POSTED BY deborah broide  |  July 11, 2011 @ 11:10 am

    Kudos to Debbie and Liz for hiring you to do theatre reviews, Gwen! I am a major theatre nut (I actually do publicity for the arts as well as other clients) – I go to London 3 times a year to see theatre. I do see almost everything in NYC (on Broadway and Off) but even I couldn’t make myself go see this show (so not my thing). Still, you did a great job reviewing, and I really hope we see more of your reviews! Along with Mrs. M’s pet stories (we have three dogs), I most look forward to reading your pieces. Keep up the good work!
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