You’ve heard the rumors and read the bad early reviews. Most Expensive Broadway Show Ever! All those injuries! And when will it get out of previews and actually open?
After much brouhaha, lots of money spent, and big changes in the creative team (namely, the dismissing of Julie Taymor and the hiring of Marvel writer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, to remedy a flawed book), Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark finally opened last Tuesday on Broadway at The Foxwoods Theatre! And? This Spidey fangirl was determined to keep an open mind, and I was rewarded for it. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a flawed show, particularly from a geek perspective, but it also isn’t the train wreck you might expect. In fact, much of it was really enjoyable.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark explores Spidey’s (Reeve Carney) origin story, his relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano), and his decision to become our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. If you’ve seen the Tobey Maguire film, you’ve already seen a lot of what’s on stage at the Foxwoods Theatre, as many of the story elements seem lifted directly from that script.
What makes this theater experience special is the way that what’s on the printed comics page can be translated for the stage. There’s an enjoyable musical number in Act 1, called “Bouncing Off the Walls” during which Peter is first exploring his powers, and the set pieces (designed by George Tsypin) and fight choreography coupled with the aerial work effectively recreate the look and feel of comic panels. In Act II, when we’re introduced to the Green Goblin and the Sinister Six along with random bank robbers and Doers of Wrong, Taymor’s mask designs are just what the doctor ordered, creating an appropriately stylized interpretation of these well-known characters as well as introducing new characters to the mix. In general, the aerial work is what makes the show, and I made sure to give a standing ovation to the team of Spider-Men required to make it happen. They worked hard and made it look effortless. The aerial work here has revolutionized what is possible in a Broadway house.
Performance-wise, a clear stand-out was Patrick Page as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin. His Osborn is a sensitive soul who genuinely wants to make the world a better place, and when the death of his wife prompts him to transform himself into the Goblin, he is all scene-stealing hilarity, giving us an unusually campy interpretation of this diabolical character. The scene where Green Goblin navigates using a cell phone is the comedic highlight of the whole show. The other stand-out in the cast was Michael Mulheren as J. Jonah Jameson. One of the best things about his portrayal of JJJ, in addition to the impeccable comic timing he brought to the role, was a clarity about the character’s motivations. It was absolutely clear that JJJ doesn’t genuinely think that Spider-Man is a menace. In fact, he doesn’t care either way. His concern is selling papers, and “helping people doesn’t sell papers.” That, as well as clearly expressing why Peter and Mary Jane are so drawn to each other, are two things the book gets right. Two things that, for me, aren’t often clear in the comics.
However, as I said, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a flawed show. Act I is uncomfortable to sit through, and boring, whereas Act II actively captures the spirit of the comic and is entertaining, funny, and ultimately uplifting. It’s like watching two different shows.
The biggest problem with Act I is the reinterpretation of Spider-Man’s origin through Arachne. The character of Arachne, a holdover from Julie Taymor and Glen Berger’s original book, while performed by the wonderful TV Carpio, makes no dramatic sense here, and clutters what could have been an emotionally-charged narrative. Rather than have Peter’s decision to become Spider-Man firmly rooted in his feelings about Uncle Ben’s death, they’ve been tied to his visions of this mythical character that he did a report about at school. In fact, one of the most unforgivable things about Act I is how it all but eliminates Uncle Ben’s role in Peter’s development and evolution into Spider-Man. He gives Peter lots of folksy, home-spun advice, but not his most famous bit—”With great power comes great responsibility.” Instead, Peter comes up with that himself after a vision of Arachne, whose cautionary tale is the thing that triggers the thought. When Uncle Ben dies, he is killed by a carjacker while Peter is off earning money by wrestling in a homemade costume. So, it isn’t that Peter was there and didn’t stop his death, it’s that he… wasn’t home? And should have been? So he blames himself?
You can tell that the original writing team didn’t respect the Spider-Man story enough to trust that it already had everything it needed, and chose to pile on what they thought was dramatic weight but ended up being useless filler. There’s also the matter of the ridiculous addition of a character called Swiss Miss to the Sinister Six. Taymor’s other additions like Swarm, a man made up of bees, make sense. But Swiss Miss came to be after a scientist worked with a genetically enhanced… swiss army knife?
For a show with Spider-Man right in the name, we get surprisingly little insight into Spider-Man/Peter Parker, and it is clear that the original writing team didn’t really understand him as a character. Which is a shame, as Reeve Carney is enormously talented and deserves more to do than this musical gives him. One performance I didn’t buy at all came from the miscast Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane. Not only was her acting and singing lifeless, but despite being an acceptable age to play the role in real life, she looks and acts way too old. I couldn’t escape the feeling that the young Peter Parker was being hit on by an older, skeevy babysitter.
But the show’s biggest flaw was the music. I’m a U2 fan, but just because you can write songs doesn’t mean you can write a musical, and Bono and The Edge clearly can’t. There was no narrative cohesion between musical numbers, and the lyrics were vague. Other than the occasional character name-dropping in the lyrics, you could take these songs and write a completely different musical around them without anyone being the wiser. There were also no standout songs, nothing that you leave the theater humming. They all blended together into a mess of mediocre, adult-contemporary pop. And for the record, in reference to a scene where recent high school graduates are at a club dancing to U2’s “Vertigo”: sorry, but teenagers haven’t danced to U2 at a club since 1989.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is ultimately all about spectacle, which it delivers in giddy abundance. The changes that Aguirre-Sacasa made to the book are apparent, and are what save Act II. Don’t go to the show expecting life-changing theater, and you might even have a good time!
Teresa Jusino loves Ultimate Spider-Man. She can currently be heard on the popular Doctor Who podcast, 2 Minute Time Lord, participating in a roundtable on Series 6.1. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com. Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres; she is the editor or Beginning of Line, the Caprica fan fiction site; and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, which is on sale now wherever books are sold! 2012 will see Teresa’s work in two upcoming sci-fi anthologies.Get Twitterpated with Teresa,“like” her on Facebook, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.