'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark': Theater Review

Spiderman - Turn Off the Dark - Green Goblin - 2011
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The costliest, most ambitious endeavor in Broadway history, “Spider-Man” finally gets off the ground but fails to soar.

Reeve Carney, Jennifer Damiano and T.V. Carpio star in the mega-musical, finally opening Tuesday at New York's Foxwoods Theatre.

NEW YORK – When a show is as misconceived as Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, it’s more realistic to expect cosmetic improvements than miracles. That’s exactly what the new creative team has accomplished in this significantly overhauled but still terminally clunky reworking of the troubled mega-musical, now officially open after a record 183 previews.

Since the ousting of original director and co-writer Julie Taymor in March, her replacement, Philip William McKinley (billed as “creative consultant”), and additional book writer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, have streamlined the story from an incoherent, overreaching mess into a dumbed-down but more straightforward account of the Marvel superhero’s origins and key conflicts. In terms of narrative clarity and character definition, the show is sharper. But while the emergency surgical team has injected fanboy humor and self-conscious acknowledgments of the production’s rocky gestation, they have not located a heart in this bloated monster.

Theater purists have been whining about the theme-parkification of Broadway since the 1980s, when Brit behemoths started dropping chandeliers and helicopters onstage. The grumbling grew louder when Disney began colonizing the theater district while 42nd Street was transformed into a gaudy tourist mall. But Spider-Man is the ultimate apotheosis of theme-park product. It’s Orlando in New York. And like an experiment of Spidey’s nemesis, Dr. Norman Osborn, a.k.a. the Green Goblin, it completes the genetic mutation of both musical theater and of audiences that demand spectacle at any cost. If that cost comes at the expense of nuanced storytelling, emotional involvement and character-enhancing, plot-advancing songs, so be it.

Spider-Man is all mechanized thrills, most of them stemming from the dazzling flying sequences, which are unprecedented on Broadway in their speed and excitement. The first taste of aerial action comes 45 minutes into the show, and the new team has shrewdly concentrated the flying into the second act, making the daredevil airborne battle between Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Reeve Carney) and the maniacal Green Goblin (Patrick Page) the climax. (In the earlier version, that clash closed the first act.) But total flight time in the 2½ hour show is around 10 minutes.

Given how thinly the figures onstage register as characters, there’s insufficient suspension of disbelief to make you forget all the visible hardware -- cables, harnesses and a noisy winch scraping back and forth across the proscenium – employed to make the flying happen. The promise of technical glitches and perhaps even an accident was part of the morbid fascination that drew huge audiences and obsessive media attention during the production’s teething period. Now, the most visceral charge is likely to come from a drop of the Green Goblin’s sweat onto the orchestra seats, or a shower of Spider-Man’s paper webbing.

Aguirre-Sacasa (a playwright who has written for HBO’s Big Love, and for Marvel Comics on Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and Nightcrawler) worked with Taymor’s original co-author, Glen Berger, to beef up the romance between Peter and high school sweetheart Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano). Peter’s Uncle Ben (Ken Marks) and Aunt May (Isabel Keating) have gained stage time, and the tragic path of Dr. Osborn from visionary scientist to mad villain has acquired more depth.

But as Peter’s adolescent identity issues develop into the dilemma of the reluctant superhero, wrestling with responsibilities and sacrifices dictated by powers he never wanted, this retelling of familiar material all feels drearily pro forma. There’s nothing that comes close to the complexity or suspense of either the original comics or the popular Sam Raimi movies. So there’s no compelling reason for Spider-Man to be a musical.

With Taymor serving as scapegoat, U2’s Bono and the Edge, who wrote the forgettable music and lyrics, have been largely exonerated for their role in this $70 million folly. But it’s their mediocre score, as much as anything, that makes this third-rate entertainment. Their attempts to write for specific characters are hampered by overly literal lyrics. Songs such as “D.I.Y. World” or “Pull the Trigger,” both led by Osborn, are shockingly inept, bringing nothing to the story. The one entirely new number added since the show’s hiatus for retooling is the Green Goblin’s “A Freak Like Me,” a shapeless rap-rock mix that sounds like a Lady Gaga reject.

Where the songs work best – and where the new team has finessed their impact – is in the all-purpose pop-rock anthems and intimate ballads. “Rise Above” has classic U2 hooks, while “If the World Should End,” sung by MJ and Peter on a suspended fire escape against a starry night sky, is a welcome moment of quiet amid more chaotic numbers. McKinley and Chase Brock, who was hired to supplement the work of original choreographer Daniel Ezralow, also do right by Peter’s “The Boy Falls From the Sky,” sung against a whirling cityscape with a ballet corps of Spider-Man doppelgangers.

With their use of forced perspective, geometric shapes and comic-strip images, George Tsypin’s sets are impressive, particularly an aerial view of the Chrysler Building with cars passing on the streets below. And CGI elements such as the citywide mayhem unleashed by the Sinister Six (a gang of mutants that now make more sense as Osborn’s malevolent spawn) have been considerably polished.

But the show still lacks a unifying look and tone. Its mish-mash of 1940s styles with contemporary references is a jarring choice that makes many jokes fall flat. Even within the elastic logic of a comic-book world, it’s disconcerting to have Daily Bugle editor J.J. Jameson (Michael Mulheren) rant about the Internet, bloggers and Facebook while his secretarial pool hammers away at typewriters.

Carney’s strong rock voice and Damiano’s more traditional Broadway vocals blend well, and these appealing performers do what they can in roles written without texture. Page registers by grounding his cartoon villainy in human roots. The show’s other evildoers mostly are rendered ineffectual inside Taymor’s grotesque masks, Eiko Ishioka’s Dick Tracy costumes (there’s a nagging jumble of comic universes here), and giant inflatable pool toys.

The final irony is that while Taymor’s exalted auteur status was clearly what allowed this venture to go so far off track before anyone intervened, set-pieces that carry her signature remain the show’s most distinctive elements.

She let the story be hijacked by her fascination with Arachne, the mythical figure who mocked the Gods and was transformed into the world’s first spider. Played by T.V. Carpio, that character has been radically reconceptualized, from a ludicrous antagonist to an alluring guardian angel. Looming into view from the murky blackness to join Peter in “Rise Above” or to visit his dreams in “Turn Off the Dark,” she now stands out as a haunting presence in an otherwise juvenile show.

Taymor’s presentation of Arachne’s back-story, with airborne weavers threading together swathes of saffron-colored fabric, is the show’s most eye-catching stroke of pure stage magic. But that happens in the opening minutes, so latecomers will catch only the theatrical equivalent of a bad summer popcorn movie.

Venue: Foxwoods Theatre, New York
Cast: Reeve Carney, Jennifer Damiano, T.V. Carpio, Patrick Page, Michael Mulheren, Ken Marks, Isabel Keating, Jeb Brown, Matthew James Thomas, Laura Beth Wells, Matt Caplan, Dwayne Clark, Luther Creek
Music and lyrics: Bono, The Edge
Book: Julie Taymor, Glen Berger, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Original director: Julie Taymor
Creative consultant: Philip Wm. McKinley
Choreography/aerial choreography: Daniel Ezralow
Additional choreography: Chase Brock
Set designer: George Tsypin
Costume designer: Eiko Ishioka
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Jonathan Deans
Projection designer: Kyle Cooper
Aerial design: Scott Rogers
Arrangements/orchestrations: David Campbell
Music producer: Paul Bogaev
Presented by Michael Cohl & Jeremiah J. Harris, Land Line Productions, Hello Entertainment/David Garfinkle/Tony Adams, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Norton Herrick and Herrick Entertainment, Billy Rovzar & Fernando Rovzar, Stephen Bronfman, Jeffrey B. Hecktman, Omneity Entertainment/Richard G. Weinberg, James L. Nederlander, Terry Allen Kramer, S2BN Entertainment, Jam Theatricals, The Mayerson/Gould/Hauser/Tysoe Group, Patricia Lambrecht, Paul McGuinness, by arrangement with Marvel Entertainment