'Spider-Man': Worked over and reworked, does it work better now?
The day has come. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is open.
Almost ten years in the making, this stage treatment of the Marvel Comics superhero has become famous for going awry. Director Julie Taymor's vision was so complex that she needed $65 million to realize it, and when previews began late last year, her elaborate flying sequences resulted in gruesome actor injuries. Meanwhile, the script (by playwright Glen Berger) and the score (by U2's Bono and the Edge) were widely derided as a confusing mess.
Ultimately, Taymor got the boot, the show closed for several weeks during the spring, and new collaborators were hired to overhaul it for the official opening.
Ben Brantley of The New York Times, at least, is underwhelmed. He writes, "The mega-expensive musical is no longer the ungodly, indecipherable mess it was in February. It's just a bore."
Having seen the version that's now open, I agree ... to a point. There are certainly problems, but there are also plenty of thrilling moments in the production, which follows high school student Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) as he crushes on his classmate Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano), gets bitten by a radioactive spider, becomes Spider-Man, and then foils an evil plot by a mad scientist who turns into the Green Goblin (Patrick Page).
The high points have little to do with that story, which is now credited to Berger and playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (whom I know personally). As Aguirre-Sacasa recently told NPR, writers can only do so much in a few weeks, especially when design elements and songs are locked into place. If the story is thin, it may be that there was nothing to be done about that.
Still, the first act is awfully perfunctory. In less than six minutes, we see Peter wake up with mutant powers, beat up some high school bullies, take down a massive wrestler, and cope with the murder of his Uncle Ben. He spouts a few reactions, but emotions can barely read when there are so many plot points to hit by intermission.
And it's not just Peter. All the characters are drones without subtext, making blunt statements like "I'm really angry!" or "This makes me sad!" You could argue that comic book characters are supposed to speak this way, but if archetypes are going to hold our attention, the single dimension they have needs to be a grand one. Here, Spider-Man mostly wants to kiss Mary Jane, even when he's got a city to defend.
We get hints of grandeur in the second act, when the Green Goblin fleshes out his plan to turn the entire city into mutants. That's a little silly, but it's a massive goal, and thwarting it at least gives Peter something to do. Bonus points go to the mythical Arachne (T.V. Carpio), a vestigial character from Taymor's earlier drafts, and one of the primary targets of criticism of the show when it previewed. She appears in a dream world, singing about the power of myth and her eternal ties to Peter. Her numbers are extraneous, but they hint at bigger themes lurking outside the show. They give you something to think about as you try to ignore "Bullying By Numbers."
That, by the way, is one of the formless songs by Bono and the Edge. It stops the show so that bullies can sing about how much they love beating people up, and it proves the composers have no experience writing for drama. A pro would handle the bullies in a few lines and save an actual song for something significant, like Peter's turmoil about his murdered uncle.
In fairness, these problems vanish when the flying begins. It's dazzling to see actors zoom through the theatre, and Taymor's gorgeous mask design enhances the sense that we're watching mythic creatures do battle around us.
Those moments are bolstered by the visual wit of the sets and costumes (designed by George Tsypin and Eiko Ishioka, respectively). For every expensive model of the Chrysler building that juts into the crowd and every metal suit that a secondary villain wears, there's also a cardboard cutout of a boom box and a floppy inflatable dinosaur wrapped around a henchman. The interplay of expensive flourishes and low-fi gags is playful and clever. It reminds us not to take the show too seriously.
Since the effects are so spectacular, Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark is not unbearable. In fact, some of the flying sequences are unforgettable, and there's no doubt that many people will love what they see. It's hard, on the other hand, to imagine anyone remembering the show's book or score, which means this musical is not much of a musical at all.