Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

By Pearl Chen

“Man, I hope Spider-Man doesn’t fall on us,” I thought as I looked up at the aerial equipment lining the Foxwoods Theater. Most likely I wasn’t the only one in the audience feeling a little nervous; until recently, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark had been known as one hot mess. Broadway’s most expensive production ever had racked up a notorious parade of injuries, delays, scathing reviews, and even the firing of its original director Julie Taymor (Lion King). Like the actors who dangled mid-air as technical difficulties loomed, the show came to a standstill last month when the entire production shut down and underwent a complete facelift.

So when the $70 million production finally (FINALLY!!) reopened this past Tuesday, more than a year after its original due date, an air of trepidation filled the theater: Would the trainwreck continue? Would the show that had been called “the worst show in Broadway history” actually redeem itself?

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

Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano in a scene from “SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark” © All Photos by Jacob Cohl

It’s on its way. No major snafus occurred the night I attended, but more importantly, the show has done away with many of its most egregious faux pas. By all accounts, the original Taymor version had been plagued by an incomprehensible plot, unnecessary characters (e.g. Arachne, Geek Chorus), and bad pacing. This latest version of Spider-Man, revamped by Philip McKinley (The Boy from Oz), took pains to undo the damage. Arachne’s role has been reduced from a key villainess to Peter’s guardian angel. The relationship between him and Mary Jane is more developed. The Green Goblin figures much more prominently, and his climactic fight with Spidey now ends the show rather than the first act. And of course, there was more FLYING.

Watching Spider-Man soar through the theater should make most people feel like they got their money’s worth. If the musical wanted to prove itself as a production that attempts things that have never been done on Broadway, it certainly delivers on the aerial spectacle. There isn’t a thrill quite like seeing Spider-Man zoom over your head as he fights the Green Goblin and shoots a cascade of webs into your lap. Or watching Peter literally bounce off walls in an enclosed room as he discovers his powers. Or taking in the magnificent web that Arachne’s “spider ladies” spin in the opening scene. (I’d imagine the views are even more impressive and complete with seats in the mid-mezzanine rather than the orchestra.)

And there is truly no Broadway production that so vividly makes you feel like you are in a comic book. Sets ingeniously mix 2-D hand-sketched design with moving, breathing, sliding constructions and jumbo screens. Skewed perspectives make Gotham City look breathtakingly ominous, while the fishbowl-lenslike aura of many scenes drum up the grotesque, fantastical vibe of the show.

Spider-Man is definitely heavy on spectacle – but very light on story. For many critics, watching the show trade complexity for coherency is a victory in itself. But I never witnessed the original, and seeing how watered down the story has become made me realize just how confusing its predecessor must have been. Unlike in the movie, Peter has now been stripped of the guilt that motivated his resolve to become Spider-Man. Arachne is now the voice guiding his decisions, and while played beautifully by T.V. Carpio, still seems unnecessary. The early-onset romance between Peter and MJ is touching, yes, but also loses that tension that made the movie great: Will the geek ever get the girl? Given the arduous path that this production has taken, though, I forgive the creators for dumbing down the plot.

What I can’t overlook are certain elements that still don’t quite work. With the exceptions of songs like “Rise Above” and “Boy Falling from the Sky” (both sung earnestly and convincingly by cutie lead actor Reeve Carney), the music in this show sucks. Sorry, Bono and The Edge, I’m just not feeling those mediocre head-banging rock numbers.

Costuming is also questionable. While eye-popping in some characters (like sparks-shooting Electro), they can look like cheap, Disneyfied Halloween get-ups in others. One too many plastic inflatable dolls live in this production — and it knows it (“It’s like you’re fighting an inflatable doll!”). The Green Goblin looks the worst. He is a piano-playing emerald buffoon:

Peter Page as the Green Goblin

Of course, none of these shortcomings seemed to bother the standing-ovation audience. The show is pure, escapist, family-friendly entertainment. While Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is more fitting for Vegas, it’s got enough momentum now to taste those bright lights of Broadway.

Last 5 posts by Pearl Chen

Posted on 16 Jun 2011 at 5:18am
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