‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’

 Jacob Cohl

As the dominant parent of the problem child Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Julie Taymor does herself no favors by including a program note about a mythological creature brought down by hubris. In an ungainly mess of a show that smacks of out-of-control auteurial arrogance, the parallel speaks for itself.

The official opening is not until March 15, but following multiple postponements and what feels like 30 years of previews, The Hollywood Reporter is observing the previously scheduled Feb. 7 opening with this review. The capitalization hiccups, cast reshuffles, technical glitches and series of injuries have been chronicled too exhaustively to require a recap here. But the big shock when sitting down finally to assess this $65 million web-slinging folly is what a monumental anticlimax it turns out to be.

Sure, there are still five preopening weeks to keep tinkering, but the point at which any savvy producer would have sent for script doctors is long past. While much has been said about the decision to begin performances without an ending in place, this “rock-circus drama” has no beginning or middle, either.

There’s one thrillingly beautiful image about 10 minutes in — during a song appropriately titled “Behold and Wonder” — as aerialists suspended from saffron-colored sashes weave an undulating fabric wall that fills the stage. And the impressive speed and agility of the flying sequences is a major leap forward in action terms from the slow glide of Mary Poppins.

But mostly, Spider-Man is chaotic, dull and a little silly. And there’s nothing half as catchy as the 1967 ABC cartoon theme song.

The absence of the word “musical” from Taymor’s definition of the show seems key. The songs by Bono and the Edge display minimal grasp of music’s function in goosing narrative or illuminating character. And despite all the wailing-guitar attitude, they only squeak by as atmospheric enhancement. Aside from one or two stirring anthems in familiar messianic U2 mode, this is strictly album filler, with echoes of everyone from T. Rex to Alice Cooper, plus an occasional nod to The Who’s Tommy. The lyrics — when you can decipher them — are too vague or too literal.

But an underwhelming score is the least of the show’s worries. What really sinks it is the borderline incoherence of its storytelling.

Die-hard fans of the Marvel Comics classic or Sam Raimi’s big-screen iterations are likely to be irked by the dismissive handling of the original story in Taymor and co-writer Glen Berger’s book.

Establishing scenes with Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) and Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano), the death of Uncle Ben (Ken Marks), the entomological experimentation of mad scientist Norman Osborn (Patrick Page), Peter’s radioactive spider bite and Osborn’s transformation into the Green Goblin are dealt with almost perfunctorily.

You sense Taymor’s impatience with this nuts-and-bolts stuff as she keeps digressing to check in on a useless Geek Chorus of comic-strip fanatics. Their debates over the direction the action should take succeed only in bringing it to a halt.

The director’s strength has always been creating stage pictures and visual coups, not developing characters or story, so perhaps it’s no surprise that everything between Spidey’s first flight and his overhead Green Goblin battle is a shapeless blur.

But internal logic disintegrates in the second act. That’s when Taymor’s interpolation from Ovid steps out of the shadows. A mortal who took on the goddess Athena in a weave-off and won, Arachne (T.V. Carpio) was transformed into a spider. Exiled to the astral plane, she eyes Peter as the man-candy to end her loneliness.

Arachne launches her initial attack via an illusory band of supervillains dubbed the Sinister Six, whose “Ugly Pageant” is among the show’s more superfluous set pieces. Their clashes with Spider-Man also expose the limited applications of stage ingenuity to this type of action, relying on filmed inserts that look like generic video-game samples.

The show really jumps the shark, however, with a number titled “Deeply Furious,” in which Arachne and her Furies go shoe-shopping before entering the human world. Seriously. The much-ballyhooed climactic face-off between Spidey and Arachne is now in place, but the diminishing returns of the airborne sequences rob the ending of excitement.

Like choreographer Daniel Ezralow’s flying work, George Tsypin’s designs dilute their impact through repetition. Taking his cue from the Marvel superhero’s co-creator Steve Ditko by way of Fritz Lang, Tsypin fills the stage with looming skyscrapers and vertiginous columns, making striking use of forced perspective. Eiko Ishioka’s villain costumes plunder a different comic-strip source, borrowing grotesque exaggerations from Dick Tracy. But the sameness and cluttered disharmony of the visuals becomes wearing.

The cast does fine within the limited scope of their roles, and Carney, Damiano and Carpio have expressive voices. But only Page as the larger-than-life Osborn/Goblin fleshes out a character.

Spider-Man at least can be considered a success in making Broadway part of the pop-cultural conversation, and ticket sales have boomed. How long they will continue to do so is the question. For rubberneckers eager to see what the fuss is about, there might be enough noisy spectacle to convince them they’ve seen something. But when this amount of time and money are tossed at a show, even demanding theatergoers should be awed, not bored.             

Venue Foxwoods Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast Reeve Carney, Jennifer Damiano, T.V. Carpio, Patrick Page, Michael Mulheren, Ken Marks, Isabel Keating, Jeb Brown, Mat Devine, Gideon Glick, Alice Lee, Jonathan Schwartz, Matthew James Thomas, Laura Beth Wells, Matt Caplan, Dwayne Clark, Luther Creek
Music-lyrics Bono, the Edge
Book Julie Taymor, Glen Berger
Director Julie Taymor

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