“Spider-Man”: Stumbling Out Of The Dark

Can the ambitious musical
soar above its troubles?

Dick Tracy called. He wants his villains back.
(Photo © Jacob Cohl.)

It’s the hottest ticket on Broadway, yet it has not even officially opened after nearly five months of previews on the Great White Way that have been plagued by a few injuries and technical snafus galore. Thanks to my attendance at the recent Syfy Channel Upfront event (Syfy is a lead media sponsor for the show), I was finally able to check out the much hyped, criticized and scrutinized musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. Because the show has been in previews for months, official press invites have not yet gone out, although some critics have seen the show after their outlets undoubtedly paid their way. The Syfy personnel, advertising clients and select media who attended the Upfront two weeks ago got to check it out for free, and it was great to finally see what the buzz was about.

I should preface this review by saying that I was a big Marvel Comics fan growing up, and I have many back issues of Spidey in various incarnations — The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, Marvel Team-Up (starring Spider-Man and…); hell, I even bought issue #1 of the Saturday morning TV adaptation Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. While I was not a devout reader of every series, Ol’ Webhead showed up in so many of the titles I collected that I got to know him fairly well during the late Seventies through the mid-Eighties. I even liked the now very dated and short-lived Seventies TV series starring Nicholas Hammond, although obviously they did not have the technology at the time to pull off something strong. And while the older cartoons have kitsch value, Sam Raimi’s three Hollywood films got it right. To be honest, a Spider-Man musical sounded like a terrible idea off the bat and a tough sell. I have not been alone in my thinking.

My favorite Spider-Man story from when I was growing up.He was out of his depth in this amazing sci-fi/fantasy epic.

So there I was on Tuesday, March 22nd, wondering where exactly this equally cheered and jeered musical was going to take me. The opening immediately showed me. A “Geek Chorus” of three teen boys is discussing the origins of Spider-Man when a sister of one comes in, proves her comic book cred, then proceeds to help them retell the story of Spider-Man with a new twist: the mythological Greco-Roman character Arachne — a talented mortal weaver who offended a goddess she bested in a weaving competition and was later transformed into the world’s first spider after she attempted suicide — is now his potential suitor and antagonist. The story starts with the classic Spider-Man elements — his high school geekdom, being bullied by the tough kids, pining for the gorgeous girl next door, gaining powers that he is not yet ready to handle, the revelation through Uncle Ben‘s death that with great power comes great responsibility and learning to handle violence when confronted by enemies like the Green Goblin. The second act focuses more on Arachne’s seduction and power struggle with Parker/Spidey and a bit of global mayhem from various villains. It sounds like a lot to cram into a show, doesn’t it? It is.

The ultimate problem with Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is that it feels like two shows. Many fans of the movies complained that Spider-Man 3 was too convoluted and had too many villains. (There were only three; is that so difficult to keep track of, people?) One could accuse SM:TOTD director Julie Taymor and her creative team of a bigger problem here as there are eight villains in their stage production. But honestly, both the musical and third movie remind me of the King-Size Annuals that I loved to read growing up. You got a longer story with a more involved plot, which was pretty awesome, in my opinion. This musical has loads of villains but little character development. In fact, the Green Goblin aside, the villains barely even get to show off their personalities. At one point, most of them are trotted out on a runaway where they are each summarily taken out by Spidey, but with little actual fighting. Call it Villains On Parade. Props for bringing them out, but when an Act II video montage of villainous activities is displayed through exciting video projections, you know something is wrong. Where is the live action? I know not everything can be done live, but too much is not shown in the flesh.

An unmasked Spider-Man and the grouchy Green Goblin
battle it out atop the Chrysler Building.
(Photo © Jacob Cohl.)

It would be easy to be like every other critic and slag this show, so I prefer to look at its good and bad points and offer some constructive criticism. On the night I saw it, the audience clearly wanted it to succeed even despite the expected technical snafus that stalled the show during the Spider-Man/Green Goblin flying fight at the climax of Act I. But they also were not applauding heartily after every musical number, either. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is shutting down for three weeks starting in mid-April, so the creators will have needed time to retool it. Hopefully it will be enough.

The Pros:
Great stunt work. Leaving aside the obvious problems with the flying — and having characters fly over the audience does make it more exhilarating than having them stay on stage — there are nine stunt Spideys who are in great shape and can bound around on stage with plenty of energy and flexibility. And anyone who plays Arachne in that large, six-legged suit gets points in my book. That’s really got to hurt your back night after night.

Cameos from vintage Spider-Man villains, including Electro, Kraven the Hunter, the Lizard, Swarm and Carnage. I had wondered if Taymor was really a fan; at least she did her homework. More, please. Swiss Miss is an interesting new creation, although not totally necessary.

Eye-popping cityscapes. Scenic designer George Tsypin’s forced perspective sets showing unusual angles, like looking down from the top of a skyscraper, are striking and work well dramatically.

Sincere romance. You do feel for Peter Parker (played by Reeve Carney) and Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano)and how he struggles to maintain his romance with her while hiding his identity. It’s got to be tough anonymously and repeatedly saving the woman you love from danger, only to have her get tired of you being late for dates.

Certain songs. While many of the songs are forgettable, some, like the rousing “Walk Away” and the militant “Pull The Trigger,” do click and induce needed emotion into the production.

Flying high again.
(Photo © Jacob Cohl.)

The Cons:
The underwhelming costumes. A $65 million budget and yet many of the villain’s costumes look like inflatable Halloween outfits. Electro’s shiny metal suit is cool but does not look like his colorful comics costume, and the hand sparklers fizzle fast. The giant “wrestler” giant blow-up doll that Peter Parker first fights is lame. I do have to say that Arachne is an awe-inspiring theatrical creature — the six legged suit and the way it has to be maneuvered is indeed impressive — but while she is badass, she is not sinister enough.

The characterizations. The show possesses a Sixties vibe to it much of the time (despite references to modern things like the internet), and some of the portrayals fall flat. Flash Thompson is too goofy to be a great bullying jock, J. Jonah Jameson isn’t his hardass, cigar-chomping self, while the wise Uncle Ben gets too little face time before his untimely death, which is a pivotal moment in Peter Parker’s life. And Spidey himself could unleash a few more of his wisecracking jibes.

The Green Goblin. Patrick Page is a good actor, but he hams it up a bit too much as the Goblin. Willem Dafoe’s cinematic portrayal is so good that I don’t know who could top it. But Page does possess more personality than his castmates onstage.

Unnecessary homages. The bank robbers vividly mirror Dick Tracy’s gangster nemeses. The Green Goblin’s campy piano performance conjures thoughts of the Phantom of the Opera. The giant painted images of Spider-Man and the Green Goblin that flash onstage invoke illustrations from The Grinch. They all pull me out of the story.

More action, less exposition. Often times calamitous events, like the Goblin attacking and killing military officials, are told to Jameson by reporters but never seen. Many of the video projections are really cool, like sequences involving villainous deeds around the world. But more of those should be on stage, not on screen. We didn’t come to watch a movie (or hear a comic book read to us).

Where the hell is Aunt May? She figures in one, maybe two scenes. She is an integral part of young Peter Parker’s life but is absent here. She is the voice of wisdom and reason in his life.

Modernize the show. Trying to make it feel hip and current while often looking like something from the Sixties is contradictory.

In your face: Spider-Man lands in the front row.
(Photo © Jacob Cohl.)

The Verdict:
Is the show fixable? To a degree, yes. I think the Arachne subplot should mostly be nixed. It’s an interesting idea but takes up too much time. The Green Goblin story works somewhat, but it needs more room to breathe, although his tussle with Spider-Man is not that exciting. Ultimately, I commend Taylor for feeling that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation is worthy of working on the level of Greek tragedy. But at the same time, so much of the show feels like a dated comic book which deflates its appeal. (The recent Prometheus Bound musical at the ART in Boston successfully imbued Greek tragedy with the passion and frenzy of modern rock.) Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark needs a more modern approach, stronger songs, a more streamlined story and a sense that something is hanging in the balance to make it soar higher. Perhaps even a moment where Spider-Man/Peter Parker is truly tempted by the dark side?

Story-wise, instead of having two acts that feel like two different shows, not to mention cramming in a plethora of short scenes, there needs to be an overall narrative that unifies everything and with more powerful, pivotal moments. It can be done, but it’s a tall order. There have already been major changes: the departure of Taymor over artistic differences with the producers and the arrival of playwright/Marvel Comics writer Roberto Aguirre Sacasa and director Philip William McKinley (The Boy From Oz), among others. Hopefully this infusion of fresh faces will make a difference. They need to make the show look and feel less like a comic book. Why did the Spider-Man, X-Men and first two Christopher Reeve Superman films work so well? They balanced humor with humanity, self-referential jibes with engaging drama, comic book fantasy with moments of realism. They were not treated as kiddie fare but could still appeal to the kid in all of us, and they made references to things that die-hard fans could appreciate while attracting a wider audience. Taymor’s version has tried to balance those elements but seems to be unintentionally self-defeating in that regard.

Ultimately Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark feels too much like a traditional Broadway musical while attempting not to be. Bringing aboard Bono and the Edge to write the score, utilizing unorthodox scenic designer George Tsypin and trying all sorts of wild, groundbreaking stunts is pretty indicative of a more new school philosophy. So why not make this show edgier and more exciting? That’s what people deserve to be seeing, and I believe it’s what they want.

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