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Thursday, December 09, 2010

WEB GOO OVER BROADWAY — SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK

You have no doubt heard about the problem-plagued Broadway translation of everyone’s favorite webhead, SPIDER-MAN: TURN OF THE DARK, a production notable as the most expensive musical in the history of the Great White Way (with an estimated cost in the neighborhood of $65,000,000), with music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge from pop music perennials U2 and helmed by the visionary Julie Taymor (she of THE LION KING renown). The show’s cost-overruns, questionable choice of composers for a Broadway show, seemingly ludicrous inclusion of the Taymor-conceived villainess Swiss Miss, wimpy would-be-show-stopper “The Boy Falls from the Sky,” and unfortunate technical glitches and cast injuries during the early previews are the main elements that have kept this troubled show in the theater headlines for months and made it into a media whipping boy, fueling a cruel sense of schadenfreude in comics fans and theater mavens alike (to say nothing of the critics and Broadway pundits).

As a lifelong comic book freak, the first words out of my mouth when I heard a Spider-Man musical was in the works were “Oh, for fuck’s sake…” and I freely admit that my disgust at the current state of mostly-soulless Broadway fare led me to instantly hate on the production, sight unseen, causing me to rail against one of the great pop culture heroes of the latter half of the 20th century joining the likes of lazy “jukebox” musicals, awful musicalized version of movies, and the seemingly endless plague of corporate Disney-based shows cluttering up the place like empty, sauce-smeared Big Mac containers found tossed out of the car window onto the side of I-95. I followed each new news item on the show with a morbid and cynical interest and decided I wanted to see the show because, in my mind, it could not possibly be anything other than a noxious turd floating in the Broadway punchbowl, it’s presence causing those at the gala party to hurl up partially-digested canapés. Anyone who knows me even peripherally knows I have a sick fascination with all things “bad,” so it was a given that I would simply have to bear witness to SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK for myself, so, with the aid of my girlfriend "She Who Cannot Be Named"’s kind use of her grad school student discount, I procured us a pair of tickets for the show’s previews. However, as the date of the performance we were to see approached, my own shadenfreude over the show gave way to a realization that the cast and crew of the show were slaving away under the very tight and merciless scrutiny of the public and the media to create a spectacle unlike anything yet seen or experienced on the Broadway stage. Taymor’s THE LION KING was a groundbreaking effort that translated the animated source’s sense of wonder to human-performed, colorful life, so her innovate chops would be sorely tested in the course of staging the king of wall-crawling, web-slinging, bad-guy-ass-kicking we have rightfully come to expect from Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man since he first graced the printed four-color page back in 1962. Being an artsy sort myself, I was finally moved to give Taymor and the rest the benefit of the doubt and hope against hope that the nay-sayers were wrong and that they would all be left with nothing but their Playbills lodged deep within their collective colon when the smoke cleared.

Well, folks, here’s what I got, and HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

The show consists of two acts, the first of which cribs heavily from the first Spider-Man film. Act One basically retells (for the umpteenth time) the story of how bookish high school student Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) gets bitten by a scientifically altered arachnid and becomes Spider-Man, while scientist Norman Osborn (Patrick Page, hamming it up with a southern accent) tests one of his experiments upon himself and ends up as the insane and utterly homicidal Green Goblin. Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano) is also there as the love interest, and the proceedings are commented upon by a contemporary Greek chorus of comic book geeks whose presence adds nothing whatsoever to the narrative.

The most major addition to the familiar tale is Arachne, the figure from Greek mythology who lost a weaving contest to a jealous and pissed-off Athena — who, along with being the goddess of wisdom, the city, and warfare, was also the patron deity of weaving (go figure) — and, after attempting to commit suicide, was turned into the world's first spider for her efforts and inadvertently giving us the word “arachnid” in the process. Arachne is thus rendered immortal and portrayed as an artist frustrated at being robbed of her self-slaughter by the goddess, and as the story progresses she chooses to gift Peter Parker with spider-powers. Exactly why is anyone’s guess, and the Greek mythology element was wholly unnecessary, so I chalk that one up to Julie Taymor’s directorial/auteurist masturbation, visually impressive though Arachne may be. Nonetheless, the character shows up at various intervals in the show, but more on that later.

The first act annoyed me for its aping of the first movie, and it’s a rather generic affair as musical entertainment goes. The songs are like an unwelcome time warp back to the late-1980’s, and even for U2 the tunes can only be described as cookie cutter confections. No lie, Bono and The Edge (oh, that ridiculous moniker!) pretty much phoned the songs in and I defy anyone who sat through the show to find any of them truly memorable.

Also of great irritation to me was the totally pointless “re-imagining” of the death of Peter’s Uncle Ben, the single most important element in galvanizing Peter into becoming a true hero who understands the maxim that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Peter’s early assholism as the fresh-out-of-the-gate Spider-Man originally led him to not stop an escaping robber when said criminal stole cash from a TV producer who stiffed him for monies owed (in the most famous version of his origin). The robber later ended up murdering Uncle Ben, causing Peter to forever bear the guilt for his uncle’s needless death, a terrible loss that could have been prevented if only he’d done the right thing and not been a dick. In terms of comic book legends, this was the equivalent to heart-wrenchingly tragic opera; in Taymor’s version, Peter does not act when school bully Flash Thompson’s car is stolen, and as a result Uncle Ben, who attempted to give chase, is run over and killed. Sure, it’s tragic, but there is a considerable qualitative difference in the personal narrative power of a homicide versus that of a hit and run, which remains unresolved in the play, thus losing Peter realizing the killer was the guy he didn’t stop and throwing that shocking realization’s gravitas straight down the bowl. Even people who are only familiar with Spider-Man’s origin from the movies can tell that’s bullshit, so what was the need to change it? Certainly not to prevent there being any deaths in a family show, since it’s made clear that people are killed left and right during the Green Goblin’s rampages, plus to say nothing of a visually interesting puppet dismemberment perpetrated by Swiss Miss during the second act.

When the fifteen-minute intermission happened, "She Who Cannot Be Named" and I compared opinions and both agreed that the show was rather unimpressive save for the truly spectacular sets, costumes and amazing aerial stunts that required Spider-Man to somersault and land about fifteen feet away from where we were seated in mid-balcony (which afforded an excellent view of all the action on and off stage, except for when the flying and web-swinging combat moved to just below the balcony’s edge).

Then the lights dimmed and Act Two began, and what followed caused both myself and "She Who Cannot Be Named" to consider the possibility that, mediocre though it may have been, the first act was at least carefully thought out, but after that the show’s creators must have went off and downed some serious quantities of the highest grade peyote imaginable. And let me be clear: I do not mean that in a good way. What coherence the first act had went out the window as Arachne grew pissy about Peter not living up to her as-yet-unstated agenda, so when Peter gets disgusted with the burden of being Spider-Man and gives up his role as NYC’s protector, she influences the Goblin and several other baddies (Electro, Kraven the Hunter, Swarm, The Lizard, and the living Swiss army knife, Swiss Miss) to go on a murderous spree in the midst of a citywide blackout. Peter eventually gets it together and recovers his suit from the office of J.Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle (as seen in the movie), but when it comes time to confront the villains, although we see an impressionistic depiction of the retrieval of the suit and Spider-Man donning it, a maskless Peter shows up to fight wearing a jacket with a big red spider emblazoned on the back and a pair of jeans. As Mary Jane dangles from one of the gargoyles on the Chrysler Building, Peter stands in front of huge projected images of his foes and strikes stylistic combat poses meant to symbolize him punching and defeating the villains, and neither actively has a final confrontation with the Green Goblin nor is seen rescuing Mary Jane. No climactic, cathartic battle, no romantic rescue of the girl he loves. Bubkes. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Fuck all. Instead, his heroic actions meet the approval of Arachne and somehow grant her the right to finally make good on her suicide attempt, once more becoming human and being drawn to the heavens with a noose around her neck (this is apparently the turning off of the dark mentioned in the title). Then a huge banner with a drawing of Spider-Man drops from the rafters and obscures the stage. When that happened, "She Who Cannot Be Named" sat stunned, looked at me and observed, “Well, that certainly ended on a strange note,” to which I observed, “Nah, it’s not over yet. He’s still got to fight the Goblin and save M.J.” But I could not have been more wrong; the house lights came up, the banner was reeled in, and the cast came out and took their bows to less-than-thunderous applause. I sat there feeling like I’d been beaten about the head with a burlap sack full of quarters. This admittedly visually spectacular triumph of stagecraft did not have an ending.

No, I swear to god.

IT DID NOT HAVE AN ACTUAL ENDING.

Even with the student discount taken into account, I felt profoundly ripped off. Much of the audience that I overheard as we exited shared my sentiments and there was much discussion of the show’s many, many faults while acknowledging that it did at least bring the eye candy. Nonetheless, it was in no way worth the exorbitant full price, which for some seats ran as high as $140.

So I unequivocally state that, for all its lofty intentions, SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK was the most stunning train wreck that I have seen in my thirty-six years of seeing shows on Broadway (I've been going since I was nine). Never in my life have I seen a show go so precipitously off the rails as this one did with that “Was I just dosed?” second act, so I strongly advise all and sundry to steer clear, unless you have that kind of money to throw away in this economy. This show may be in previews at the moment, but its problems are too many to tweak without completely starting over from scratch with the book, and that ain't gonna happen before the show's proper opening in January.

That said, I would like to conclude with a few notes on some of the show’s points of interest, both the good and the howlingly bad:

• Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano are largely blameless and both are quite good for what they are given to do as Peter and Mary Jane. Both have good (miked) voices and can carry their respective tunes, but they exhibit little if any chemistry, and that’s a problem when trying to sell a show’s emotional core.

• The Greek chorus of comic book geeks is annoying and unnecessary, eventually getting literally chased off the stage during the “Deeply Furious” number (more on that shortly), never to return. Since this show is still in previews and said previews are when tweaks are made before the show’s proper opening, the Greek chorus gets my strongest nomination as the one element in the show that could be completely excised without hindering anything in the least.

• I would have also suggested the removal of Arachne because, for the life of me, I could not figure out just why the hell she was there at all. But then, quite unexpectedly, she turns out to have influence over the bad guys as part of her ill-defined plans for Peter. At one point she states that she is “the only real artist working today,” which makes me think that Julie Taymor is using her as a blatantly allegorical mouthpiece for her thoughts on Broadway and her own career. Maybe I’m wrong, but…

• The plot notes that during the blackout and villains’ rampage, fifty shoe stores were robbed of their stock, an event deemed un-newsworthy by J. Jonah Jameson (and me). That pointless bit comes back later and provides the impetus for the single worst number I’ve ever seen in a live show, specifically “Deeply Furious,” in which Arachne’s Furies, a number of half-human spider-women with well-crafted extra arachnid limbs, take the aforementioned shoes, put them on their multiple feet, and sing about how they’re going to “shoe chop” Spider-Man.























It was like some scene that loony film director Ken Russell had left on the cutting room floor during the editing of his balls-out lysergic LISZTOMANIA (1975), and as it played out onstage, "She Who Cannot Be Named" nearly laughed until she puked, while I sat through the entirety of the number with my mouth hanging open in complete and utter disbelief. I looked around to see how the rest of the audience was reacting to it, and all I saw were stony faces like a multitude of deer caught in the proverbial headlights. When the song ended, I looked at "She Who Cannot Be Named" (who was still collecting herself) and asked aloud, “Did I just actually see that?” I genuinely hope that the segment gets taped for posterity so future generations can gaze upon it in wonder and outright confusion.

• The song “D.I.Y. World,” sung by Norman Osborn and fellow scientists at OsCorp in praise of their own work and genius, felt like an unintentional throwback to “Oh Happy Day” from the musical version of LI’L ABNER (1956), some fifty-four years after the fact.

• The Daily Bugle’s set was highly reminiscent of that seen in the “Shall I take dictation” sequence in the dystopian porn film CAFÉ FLESH (1982), complete with surrealistic lighting, minimalist furnishings, and typists with typewriters and no desks (in the movie there was only one; here there are several). Also, the Bugle’s staff was an assortment of Broadway musical reporter clichés whose costume designs intermingled looks ranging from the early-1930’s through roughly 1964, lending the whole thing the look of a newsroom in another dimension.

• How the Green Goblin knew who Peter Parker was when he captures and unmasks him is not explained. He is also aware of Peter’s relationships with M.J. and Aunt May, also unexplained. That info was all given in the movie, so I’m guessing the script was counting on its audience having seen that film. If so, that’s lazy scriptwriting at its most egregious.

• The ludicrous and much-decried Swiss Miss is only in it for maybe four or five minutes and she has no lines.

• Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr., and J. Michael Straczinski are all name-checked as scientists on staff at OsCorp. For those not in the know, the first two are the co-creators of Spider-Man, the third defined the character’s more polished and romantic look once Ditko left drawing the comics (odds are if you’re familiar with Spider-Man’s signature image over the past four-plus decades, you know Romita’s take on the character), and J.M. Straczinski wrote the character in recent years. A wee nod for the geeks in the audience.

• During some of the fight scenes in the first act, the tired trope of “Pow/Biff/Thwack” sound effects a la the classic Adam West Batman TV series from the 1960’s are seen. That gag was tired by 1972 and does not hold water in the 2000’s.

• Most obnoxious moment in the entire show: a dance club scene where the song the crowd is dancing to is U2’s 2004 hit “Vertigo.” Dudes, you wrote the music for the entire show. Do you really need to do product placement for your own records as well? Majorly douchey move.

• The only memorable thing about any of the show’s music is the guitar hook that thankfully dominates “The Boy Falls from the Sky.”

Proof that I bore witness.

27 comments:

Savark said...

Based on your review, Looks to me like Julie threw this one on purpose because of all the fanboy nay sayers, The Geek Chorus (intentional Freudian slip) was her fuck you to the fans. Swiss Miss was an excuse to waste money and piss off the fans too. After this I don't wanna hear even one word about a Batman on Broadway...EVER!

Amber Love said...

But they are talking about more comic based musicals! Oh no! What can we do to stop it? I'm guessing this is what would happen if Craig Mazin (Director of Superhero Movie) would do if he had $65mm and a stage.

Evan Skolnick said...

Go see Pee-wee, Steve! You'll feel so much better about Broadway afterward, I promise!

Anonymous said...

So...Marvel finally has gotten creative control of their characters on TV and in film so they went out and found a whole new media to F up their characters. Once again this would have been a good opportunity to get people to say "Maybe I'll go buy a Spider-man comic!" and they put a turd out there.

ChristopherH said...

<< After this I don't wanna hear even one word about a Batman on Broadway...EVER!>>

LOL

A bit of historical trivia and Batman lore...

In addition to pulp influences, Bob Kane cited two films for providing his inspiration for Batman: "The Mark of Zorro" (1920) and "The Bat Whispers" (1930).

"The Bat Whispers", interesting and humorous fare for the nostalgic black and white mystery film connoisseur, was itself, you guessed it, based on a popular Broadway play of the 1920s.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bat_Whispers

Shawn L. said...

"The Greek chorus of comic book geeks is annoying and unnecessary, eventually getting literally chased off the stage during the “Deeply Furious” number (more on that shortly), never to return."

- Sounds like they were ripping off a similar incident with the narrator in "Into the Woods"

alistairrobb said...

Told you so.

Terry Beatty said...

This sounds truly awful. I must admit, after reading your description of it, I now want to see the "shoe chop" number -- though I'm ashamed to admit it -- as clearly I'm driven by the same urge that draws people to rubberneck at train wrecks and house fires.

James said...

If you watch the official commercial for the show on Youtube you can actually see a split second of the "shoe chop" scene around the seven second mark. It looks even more preposterous than what I imagined in my head.

Anonymous said...

the show seems to be written in a "right here, right now" sort of way. nobody involved in the show expected this thing to have a long shelf life. they were cramming this thing with little cultural references to keep the kids and the geeks and the tourists engaged in the show, rather than create a lasting piece of art. nobody (except maybe the very green to this world guys from U2) ever expected this script to go into the textbooks and be revived and reinvisioned every couple of decades for the next 100 years. i'm sure that they were telling themselves this is at best an attempt to get new groups and a new generation of people interested in live theater (a noble cause), or possibly that they'd be the first out of gate with some just over the horizon theater movement that uses circ style acrobatics.

as for the script-in-previews thing; i work in theater and i have personally seen major playwrites, Tony and Pulitzer winners, almost completely re-write shows in the second to last preview for a world premiere. it actually happens a lot.
granted it's a lot harder and a lot less often in big musicals like this. once you get out of tech, any big sweeping changes will usually take re-writing, re-composing, and re-teching of the show. that, and cutting characters simply doesn't happen this close to opening. that person might not be there after the initial run is over, but they aren't going to lay off actors who have been hired to do this job. that sort of thing almost never happens.

The_Yash said...

Total train wreck. And with the upcoming "relaunch" of the movies, Spidey's got no chance. Where's Christopher Nolan when you need him?

Bobby the Blue Baxojayz said...

I had not planned on seeing this anyway, but your review only confirms my suspicions. U2 hasn't done anything worth listening to in 25 years and the hope that they might do this right is laughable. Plus SPIDERMAN as a musical just sounds retarded. I hope this vanishes as fast as Anne Rice's Broadway shit storm, Lestat. Also ill-conceived.

Jim Browski said...

I'm still waiting for someone to produce "Electra Woman and Dyna Girl- The Musical"

Satyrblade said...

Sounds like someone thought The Producers was a documentary...

Anonymous said...

Well, there's aloways the reasonably successful Superman Musical frrom the late 60s...

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I was struggling and speachless after seeing it last night. You have articulated my every flabergasted response. I can only add: why did we go from 2 dimensional black and white cut outs to millions of dollars of LED in Act 2?

Thanks again.

PiercingMetal Ken said...

Steve this was a terrific observation of what really appears to be many levels of dreadful in terms of a production. While the Marvel legends and even the DC ones are perfect for the big screen one has to assume before even planning it, that Broadway is just not the place for their tales. It sounds as if Taymor is living off the accolades from "Lion King" which she of course deserves, but let's come up with something else cool already.

It's not a surprise that the music didn't interest you and I read how U2 was out on tour and not available to work the tunes into the script better. I also got a kick out of your description of the second act and felt that perhaps the idea was for the audience to let their imagination put the action together. I am sorry but at those kind of prices I require my imagination to remain as it is in my head and let those producers of entertainment keep my senses amused.

This sounds like a "Must Miss" event. I wonder how long this will run and if it's dismal reviews will find future similar productions getting the kibosh put on them.

Peter Sanderson said...

From your description it seems really awful, worse than even Michael Riedel's NY Post costumes would lead one to believe. As I feared, it seems as if Taymor simply has no feel for the superhero genre or a real understanding of the Spider-Man mythos: changing how Uncle Ben died is just inexplicable, as is Marvel's apparent approval of the change. The "Geek Chorus," alas, is not going away, because their scenes are used to cover the time needed for scenery changes. I'll be seeing the show myself in a few weeks, but as a comics historian, I feel it's my duty to witness this for myself.

Anonymous said...

oh dear god NO! Those CBS Shazam and Isis shows of the 70's seem utterly brilliant now!

Stephanie Ratcliffe said...

Words fail me. How could they have left it without an ending? A dreadful thought occurred to me. They ran out of money and decided to make the rest of it a sequel. I know they aren't supposed to have sequels of plays, but this is a comic book play.

I am so sorry you and Thaytia sat through that.

Bunche said...

I'm not sorry I saw it, for purely historical reasons, but it was quite dire.

ANLSostak66 said...

Saw Spiderman Saturday night.
Did I hate it NO. Is it my favorite NO. Would I take my kids, uhmmmmm, yes if that was the show they choose to see. Am I suggesting it to people who know I saw it. YES, sure why not. It was not horrible by any means.
In my opinion:
The flying was AMAZING. The dancers were fantastic. Costumes really great. Music was by Bono for sure. Peter Parker I really liked, saw Arachne's u/s yea not so much,and MJ lacked something. Green Goblin FANTASTIC. Sets really great. Comic costumes fantastic.
The show just ended. No end,, just sort of stopped. Or as I said that night, "that was a odd ending or lack of."
We have to remember the show is being told as a story by a group of teen agers, try sinking to that level a bit, and seeing it from there. I was told that before and went with zero expectations and did not dislike the show. Do they need to tweek several thing? YUP, but I don't want to put the show down. I think it has potential, and if people go see it and continue to comment maybe some where they will see some suggestions and take them. I do think it has taken a lot of time to get this up and running, but the technicals are out of control amazing. I now understand the taking a lot of time, safety is a HUGE factor. We saw it in previews and it went off without a hitch and never stopped until the end. Technicals seem under control. Bashing the shows are a part of what is keeping people away from BW and that is one reason (of many) why BW is dying. It needs to be alive and not handed death notices.
SO in my little opinion, go see the show, support BW be honest, but be positive.

Bunche said...

Sorry, but that excuse of the story being told by comic book geeks (who are rather suddenly jettisoned from the proceedings) does not make up for the fact that there is no ending. As was made clear from my review (or so I thought), I am a Broadway supporter, so when people spend the frequently exorbitant ticket prices for shows I think they should at least be given a story that features a proper conclusion of any kind, which this show did not possess. If indeed we were supposed to interpret the lack of an ending as the result of the kids' interpretation, I'm even more offended because that is insulting to the intelligence of kids and would have been the very nadir of lazy storytelling. Speaking as a person who remembers their pre-adult years with considerable clarity and who also worked professionally with kids ranging in age from pre-school through grade 10 for years, I have witnessed kids tell stories countless times and they always managed to conclude the stories they told with an actual conclusion, be they related verbally or drawn as elementary comics.

Also, at no point did I make mention of there being any technical glitches in the show when I saw it because there were none; the producer who introduced the show that night said to the audience that "tonight may be the night when we pull this off without any stoppage," and indeed it was.

Lastly, I agree that Broadway needs to to be kept alive, but as long as the producers keep trotting out expensive soulless dreck — which this show certainly was, its technical excellence and a few okay performances notwithstanding — the onus of failure is on them, not audiences who would like nothing more than to experience some worthwhile theater. Most Broadway shows these days rely on the convenience of brand name recognition, thus unleashing a plethora of lazy, heartless crap like "jukebox" musicals (the real thrust of which could be obtained for one-tenth the ticket price by buying the subject's "greatest hits" CD), Disney pap (THE LION KING being the sole worthy screen-to-stage translation of that lot) and questionable adaptations of movies. Broadway appears to have lost its soul in an age of "entertainment by committee," and that, if you ask me, is the real cancer that is slowly killing it as a viable creative medium.

Anonymous said...

OOPSIE! We am going to see this towards the end of December....do you think that they will be able to come up with an alternate ending by then? we spent close to $500.00 USD to see this show, and we are taking two people who have never been to Broadway before. Ddo you think they will kill us? if so - please look for us near Jones Beach.

Michele said...

Bunche, my friend. Go see "Next to Normal" before it closes!! A rock musical about bi-polar disorder and the pharmaceutical industry, and it's very good! A damn shame it never found it's audience.

Anonymous said...

I had the unfortunate luck to see this show tonight. If it actually opens on Broadway i will be amazed. While the sets, costumes and visual effect are impressive, this is the worst show I have ever seen, ever. I have been to high school musicals that would put this shoe to shame. Stay away!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

yes but if you go know they have completely rewritten the story the greek chorus is out and arachne is no longer a main character shes just one of peter visions also there is an ending know