Thursday, December 23, 2010

Review: Broadway's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

About two weeks ago, Getsuyobi and I saw the Spider-Man musical. Since then I have been struggling with writing this review. Part of me feels uncomfortable writing about a show that is in previews and obviously incomplete, but the rest of me feels that given what's been happening with the show, that maybe it's time to suck it up and write.

Most people know the show has been plagued with problems since the beginning. For those who don't, the brief recap is big names actors were hired then dropped out, funding was lost then found, opening night has been moved around repeatedly, the very first preview ran nearly four hours due to technical difficulties including the actors being suspended over the audience, and the most distressing problem has been the actors keep getting hurt. These are not minor injuries. Before previews, two actors were injured doing the same stunt; one broke his toe, the other, both of his wrists. During the first preview, one of the leads, Natalie Mendoza, suffered a concussion and her understudy, America Olivo, took over the role for a few weeks, and finally, three nights ago, Spider-Man stunt double, Christopher Tierney, fell from a platform and into a pit in the stage. While reports have been conflicting as to how serious his injuries are (he's listed in stable but serious condition), but I think it is safe to say something is very wrong with the production. Well, a lot of things are wrong with the production.

The stunt that got Christopher Tierney hurt as well as one of the strangest slo-mo walks I've ever seen.

Let's start with the basics - the music and the book.

The music - It's bland. It's unmemorable and completely unworthy of being on a Broadway stage. There were maybe three songs that could be considered worthy, and of those, one of them, "Pull the Trigger," is included only because it had the best dance number, otherwise it was a meh song. It is apparent that Bono and the Edge are unfamiliar with writing songs for more than one character, though every now and then, they got something right like with the song "If the World Should End."

The book - It is a complete mess. Act One focuses on the origin story and all the basic components are there - Peter is bullied & wants Mary Jane, gets bitten by a radioactive spider, Uncle Ben dies, etc. However, and maybe I'm being a bit of a purest, but I have a problem with how Uncle Ben's death is handled. Flash Thompson, previously established as the d-bag that he is, accidentally hits Ben when he loses control of his car. Now, from a theatrical point of view, this works for the story. It doesn't add unnecessary people and it quickly move the story along, but as a Spider-Man fan, I feel it diminished his journey. Uncle Ben's death has played such a pivotal role in Peter's life because of the guilt he felt, that to take that away, makes him and the story weaker.

Act One also gives us Arachne, the weaver who bested Athena in a weaving contest and was ultimately cursed and turned into the first spider, and the Green Goblin. Arachne is featured more prominently in Act Two so I'll discuss her there, but the Green Goblin decently developed. I thoroughly enjoyed what was done with him. Instead of including Harry Osborn into the story, Norman and his wife, Emily Osborn, work together, playing with cutting edge technology and trying to manipulate DNA to create super beings. Norman decides to try some of this out on himself and when if goes horribly wrong, he's super powerful and his wife is dead, leading to him going nuts. What makes this work is there is an emotional connection with his transformation.

Act Two - Spider-Man has defeated Green Goblin, he's supposedly dead, and Peter has decided to hang up his Spidey shoes so he can have a real life. Enter Arachne, who freaks out over this because she has decided Spider-Man is the one to help release her from her curse and let her die. Yeah, there was a lot of head scratching done at this point. Her way of getting Peter to put the uniform back on was to, apparently, create illusions of the Green Goblin and Sinister Six, have them terrorize New York, and of course, kidnap Mary Jane, but before she does this, I think she tries to have astral plane sex with Peter. I'm still not sure how that all worked out.

If Arachne had been a better developed character, then having her pull everybody's strings might have made sense but she wasn't and most of the time, when she spoke, it just sounded like melodramatic whining. Her singing voice was outstanding but I just wanted to help kill her when she talked. The end also felt tacked on. I had read another review that said the ending left far too many plot threads dangling, so I'm guessing this was their way of fixing it, but it felt too hurried and just wrong. Then again, this is also the act that brought us an evil catwalk featuring the Sinister Six and "Deeply Furious," a song about shoes. You heard me. Shoes. I'm still not convinced they weren't pumping something in the air.

You have to see it to believe it!
Next - The actors and choreography

Overall, the actors were trying their damnedest to make the show work. It wasn't their fault they had such weak material to work with. One thing that was very noticeable was many of them sounded like they were straining their voice, Reeve Carney, who plays Peter, in particular, was struggling towards the end.

The bullies didn't work for me. I don't know if it was the writing, the direction, or the acting choices, but they were too stereotypical and too over the top, and whenever Flash talked, I was taken out of the story because the actor looked too old for the role and all I could think about was the original cast of 90210.

The outstanding performances were Jennifer Damiano, who captured Mary Jane's strong spirit while showing her vulnerabilities, Michael Mulheren as J. Jonah Jameson, who was perfect as the fast talking, stubborn, and Spidey slandering editor in chief of The Daily Bugle, and Patrick Page as the Green Goblin. Page gave the Goblin depth and humor and chock full of crazy. Scene chewing doesn't even describe what this man did. It was great.

The choreography - For the dance numbers, it was weak. Other than during "Pull the Trigger," it was lackluster. There was nothing spectacular about it. I was very disappointed by it.

Now the technical choreography is a different story. The performance we saw did not appear to have any technical problems and the stunts were outstanding. I don't know if I need it in a show, but the fangirl in me squeed a little when Spider-Man and Green Goblin flew over us. I counted ten different Spider-Mans, not counting Reeve Carney, and they rocked. The stunts are so complicated. I have to give Julie Taymor credit; she used as much space as she could to bring her vision to life. Speaking of her vision...

Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man
The sets - This is where Julie Taymor excels. Some people have called her sets too cartoony, I agree with some of it (using POW! & BAM! was too much), but it felt like she was going for a surreal type of universe. All of her masks were over the top, but I felt it worked with the mostly muted tones of set.

My absolute favorite set piece was the Chrysler Building. The top expanded from beneath the stage so the Green Goblin and Spider-Man could "chat," and then it inverts as Spider-Man falls to the ground. There are tiny taxis to help give the illusion of depth and it's just wonderful.

Reeve Carney and the deliciously wonderful Patrick Page
Finally - The direction - I love Julie Taymor's work. I think she is a brilliant director and her visuals are out of this world. However, I do not believe she was the right person for this or maybe she could have been the right director, if she had not also co-written the book. It feels as if she took most her source material from the Spider-Man movies, not the comics and that makes a big difference. This isn't a story she can just come in to and do whatever she wants. There is a very rich history to consider. She created a new character, Swiss Miss, who did nothing other than get her butt kicked by Spider-Man. She could have been interesting, if she actually did something and hadn't looked like the mutated lovechild of the Tin Man and Dot Matrix from Spaceballs.

I could go on and on about the strange spectacle that is Spider-Man, but I think I've said more than enough. As of now, the opening date has once again been pushed back, and it's scheduled to open in February. The reason given for this is they want to retool the show, particularly the second act. This will also allow them to get the tech in order. The other night's accident has been deemed human error so the show will go on. It is my sincere hope that they focus on strengthening the book and the songs and find a way to attract new fans while satisfying the old fans. And yes, if they ever make it to opening night, it will seen again.

 Pictures courtesy of Sara Krulwich / Redux Pictures and Jacob Cohl


  1. I gotta say, I think Swiss Miss looks awesome! Can I assume that her costume is supposed to depict lots of sharp blade-like projections all over her body? Is her name derived from her ability to slice, dice, purree and finally cream her victims into a goey puddle of a consistancy of pudding? Oh, wait, she just got her ass kicked. Too bad. Nice review. I'll be waiting to see if they fix some of the problems in the plot. The Arachne thing sounds horrible. And I hate it when some uber god uses lots of illusion and dream sequence. To me that's quite often a sign of lazy writing: Gee, we want all this cool stuff to happen and all these different characters to do all this stuff...but gee, that requires motivations for each of those characters and each thing/crime/attack they do has to actually stem from a previous event and lead to another, and maybe fit a larger framework of goals that further the plot. F*&@#, that sounds like a lot of work. Hey, I know! Lets just have everything be an illusion by an inexplicably insane and self-destructive quasi-omnipotent being! Then we can have tons of characters do tons of f%$&@ing crazy s#$%@ for no reason at all! RANT OVER. Anyways.
    Nice review, Wysefere!

  2. PS: The more I look at Swiss Miss's shimmery, shiny funnels, the more I get turned on. Is this wrong?

  3. Your rant is everything I was thinking... except for being turned on by Swiss Miss. That one's all you. :)

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  5. Thanks, it's definitely something I would like to pursue. I appreciate the feedback.