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.