At that time, the news of a Spidey musical was accompanied with the exciting dual announcements of the show’s director—Julie Taymor—and composers—U2’s Bono and The Edge. I was dubious. To me, the too-good-to-be-true news sounded more like the stage equivalent of Ishtar, the infamous Hollywood flop that began with such high hopes for success due to its A-list of ingredients, not the least of which was the first-time pairing of mega-stars—at the time—Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. Plus, although a fan of U2, neither Bono nor The Edge had ever written a musical score before. But their songs have always been dramatic, so I was hopeful.
A half-dozen years and 65 million dollars later the show continues to jump hurdles and dodge bullets, including financial woes, delayed openings, seriously injured actors—most recently Natalie Mendoza, who plays the villain Arachne, suffering a concussion last week—and dreadful reviews. Still, I was excited to see it, though my feelings were tempered with trepidation.
So was it as bad as reported?
Yes and no.
SPOILER WARNING: The following review goes into depth about the musical, its plot, staging, characters and outcome. You have been duly advised.
The theater was packed, so the negative feedback certainly wasn’t turning people away. More likely, the opposite. No one wants to see the results of a terrific automobile accident, either, but everyone slows to get a view of the carnage as they putter by, gasping in horror as they do so.
A red scrim with a giant illustration of a swinging Spider-Man, shooting his webbing and a stylized representation of the Brooklyn Bridge emerging along with his signature sticky fluid, hung before the stage. Of course, Spidey-o-files know it was the George Washington Bridge from which the Web-Swinger’s original paramour, Gwen Stacy, was hurled to her death, but I understand the use of the more iconic Brooklyn landmark. On either side of the scrim blue neon webbing angles up and outward from floor to ceiling, making the musical’s canvas encompass the entirety of the audience’s view and suggests that the entire theater is the web on which the tale will be woven (But would that make the audience members helpless victims?).
Show producer Michael Cohl, who was brought in to save the show when money issues threatened to close it a year ago, walked out before curtains rise to offer a safety precaution to the audience to basically not touch the actors at any time during the performance. Though he furthered by stating the announcement was mandated by whatever theater overseers were responsible for such, it sounded more like an apology for the show before it had even begun.
The scrim rises and the show opens with the fateful moment in Spider-Man lore—as depicted in the first movie—where his love Mary-Jane dangles from a bridge, the victim of the Green Goblin. His race to rescue her before she falls to her doom is cut short, however, by the entrance of quartet of teens discussing their plans to write the ultimate Spider-Man story, leading the audience to believe that the scene had sprung from the imagination of the youths. Their intrusion accompanies the drop of another scrim, the bottom half of which is festooned with a mélange of illustrations in the mode of original Spidey artist, Steve Ditko, plastered in a slapdash fashion.
The program lists the group—three boys and a girl—as the “Geek Chorus,” a cute pun and sly nod to the theatrical convention of a Greek Chorus first utilized in the plays of the ancient Greeks. The Greek Chorus served as onstage commentators, offering insight and exposition as a means of furthering the plot in a quick and concise manner. Taymor’s usage of the device is the first hint that she intends her production to echo the heroic epics of the ancients with all their over-the-top bells and whistles. And if her means of doing so proves too subtle, she rams the point home with the introduction of Arachne, the controversial character Taymor created for the show.
Arachne’s entrance is triggered when the girl corrects the boys’ assertions that Peter Parker was the first to have arachnid powers by elucidating them on the character of Greco-Roman mythology. Arachne was a skilled weaver who boasted that her skills were better than Athena’s, without acknowledging that her talents came in part from the goddess. When Arachne bested Athena in producing a tapestry, the mortal was transformed into a spider.
I was by no means harrumphing the appearance of Arachne. I learned to keep an open mind over the years about various iterations of beloved characters and their histories. Remaining a steadfast Sheldon will only bring disappointment, frustration and anger. Taymor’s Arachne offered a different idea on Spider-Man’s origin, implying that not just anyone could have attained arachnid powers from the bite of that irradiated spider. Peter Parker was fated to do so, chosen by Arachne as the vehicle to bring her powers into the modern world.
From this deviation the musical continues into more familiar territory: class genius Parker bullied; bitten by aforementioned spider during field trip; using new-found powers for personal gain, resulting in death of uncle; turning to crime-fighting; inadvertently causing the birth of the Green Goblin; which in turn leads to abduction of Mary-Jane; her rescue; and the Goblin’s demise.
All before intermission!
Taymor achieves this by condensing certain story elements and hurrying through others to both satisfying and frustrating effect. Of the former is her clever mash-up of Spider-Man’s and the Green Goblin’s origins. She introduces Norman Osborn—he who shall become Gobby—as the scientist in charge of the lab, which Parker’s class visits. Osborn is a geneticist who believes the key to mankind’s future is genetic engineering, splicing DNA and manipulating code from other animal species to give humans enhanced abilities for survival, such as being able to breathe underwater. It is his experiment with spiders that results in Parker’s fateful bite.
Later, when Osborn hears of Spider-Man’s exploits, he believes the Wall-Crawler is the work of former employees who stole his secrets when they defected. In an effort to keep pace with the perceived competition, he prematurely undergoes a process on himself, which turns him into The Goblin.
Conversely, the pivotal moment in Spider-Man’s origin, the one element that defines him, that brought the character to the realization that “with great power must come great responsibility,” his entire raison d’être, that defining event Taymor decides to gloss over. In a hurried throwaway sequence that one would miss by blinking, Parker responds “not my problem,” when he hears the cries of someone asking assistance to stop a thief from stealing Flash Thompson’s car. Uncle Ben takes up the call and is run down by the thief. The staging and telling is a jumbled mess that someone with ADD would have trouble following.
In the original the culprit is robbing the gate receipts of the wrestling match at which a hooded Parker wins $1000 soon after gaining his arachnid abilities when he decides to use them for personal gain. That same evening the criminal kills Uncle Ben while robbing Parker’s home. The result may be the same, but the poignancy of the original far exceeds Taymor’s bastardization of the moment.
And I understand the need for change when adapting one form of art to another. Each dictates different approaches and each has its pluses and minuses. So true with theater, especially when adapting a character with nigh forty years of stories over a half dozen or so titles; a live-action TV series and several cartoon series; and a successful movie franchise with a reboot on the way; not to mention appearances in song and guest spots in various forms, such as on The Electric Company. A Broadway production is a single entity. There are no sequels with the rare exception of the recently opened Phantom of the Opera show, Love Never Dies. The whole of the subject must be encapsulated in roughly two hours through a combination of words, music and theatrics. What is kept and how it is presented are the keys to the efficacy and success of an adaptation.
Taymor’s decision to give short shrift to Uncle Ben’s death, yet spend prolonged stage time on the establishment of Arachne—her creation—showed how much the director didn’t understand or didn’t care about the Spider-Man character. It is not the arachnid powers that define the character, but how he decides to use them, devoting his life to the mantra, “With great power, must come great responsibility.” Taymor does not ignore this concept, but her predilection for theatrics and her obsession with Arachne all but erases its importance in the show.
As this and other sequences in the musical are splattered in front of the audience, all I kept thinking was, “I’m sorry, Julie, if the story is getting in the way of your special effects.” This concentration of substance over story also makes the play disjointed, scenes don’t transition as much as pop up out of the blue. The result is much like a music video.
As each arc reaches its height, a length of similarly-hued cloth stretching horizontally the entirety of the stage shoots upward betwixt the storytellers, in effect weaving with the tethers. With each swing, the arc grows smaller and the chance of a mishap increases. Upon the tale’s completion, the swinging had stopped and a giant tapestry hung over the stage. The choreography is ingenius in its symmetry with the myth, and makes what could have been a dry expository sequence, a thrilling event.
And the musical hadn’t even started with the Spider-Man web-slinging moments, yet. Words cannot do justice to the awe in witnessing Spidey in action LIVE; not a video nor special effect. And not merely up and down over the stage à la Mary Martin in Peter Pan. The character swoops over the audience from stage to the theater’s furthest reaches—the loge, upper and side balconies—landing in the aisles, then taking off again in an instant. Witnessing it was akin to the feeling of hurtling down the initial hill of a rollercoaster, a feeling I relive every time a think about it, even now as I write these words. The mind boggles at the hours the actors and technical crew had to go through in order to perfect these high-flying maneuvers. And thankfully, the night I experienced the musical, they were nigh-flawless, barring nearly imperceptible moments where the actor momentarily had to adjust his grip on the wire. But the minor fumbling with the rigging were purely cosmetic, the hand placement needed to illustrate Spider-Man’s seeming usage of his webbing.
The battle with the Green Goblin above the audience, the finale to Act I, is a tour-de-force. I needed stitches on my chin by intermission, my jaw had hit the floor so often.
And there were some wonderful grounded scenes as well, moments that showed that Taymor can create magic with out a cacophony of razzle dazzle. During one of the show’s most moving songs, “No More,” Parker’s life is cleverly juxtaposed with Mary-Jane’s and gracefully illustrates the idea that no one’s life is paradise. Outside his home, Parker is considered a loser, the brilliance that makes him special, only serves to ostracize him from his peers. Yet, his home life is filled with love and attention by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Meanwhile, MJ’s beauty and popularity at school, lay in stark contrast to her broken home life. Abused and beaten by an alcoholic single-parent father, she, too, feels the pangs of isolation. Taymor’s staging of the duet, which is not a duet, is restrained, wisely allowing the music and the emotions therein to shine.
Speaking of the music, Bono and The Edge did a exemplary job. I feared their adapting to the theater would result in a watered down rendering of their talents, in essence, a muzak version of U2. I needn’t have worried. The songwriting pair retained their integrity and concocted a score that is as thrilling and deep as the play’s subject matter.
Reeve Carney (Peter Parker) and Jennifer Damiano (Mary-Jane)... Their good performances could not be undermined by Taymor’s theatrics
Reeve Carney’s Peter Parker and Jennifer Damiano’s MJ were good. I found the couple of songs they sang together to be my favorite of the show. Patrick Page’s Norman Osborn/Green Goblin was a fantastic interpretation of the character; twisted, snarky, evil and ultimately enjoyable. Unfortunately, anyone playing J. Jonah Jameson has to compete with J. K. Simmons’s definitive portrayal of the character in the Sam Raimi films, and Michael Mulheren just cannot compete. But all the actors are under-minded by Taymor’s flash. Apparently, it isn’t just plot that Julie doesn’t have time for.
By intermission I was thinking, “This show is going to make a mint.” Sure, there were problems in scene transition and storytelling, and the characters could use more development, but with some tweaking and tightening, the musical could be something great.
But I also fearfully wondered, with the Goblin’s demise, where would the show go next? A peek at the program revealed that Spider-Man foes, the Sinister Six, were due to appear. Cool, I thought. What else could top the exciting mano-a-mano ending to Act I, but a battle royale pitting Spidey against a cadre of foes?
I should not have gotten my hopes up. The second half of the musical is a wreck, descending into camp and collapsing under Taymor’s self-obsession with spectacle and ego.
It begins logically enough with Parker’s secret world of crime-fighting destroying his life, most notably his relationship with Mary-Jane. In a scene taken directly from the seminal story in Amazing Spider-Man #50 by writer Stan Lee and artist John Romita, including an homage to that classic issue’s final splash, Parker quits being Spider-Man, going so far as throwing his webbed togs in a trash can.
Spider-Man’s absence from the streets sparks a crime wave. It also pisses off Arachne who does not wish her spider powers to once again fall into obscurity. In an overwrought masterbatory sequence, she haunts Parker’s dreams. When that doesn’t stir the arachnid out of him, she assumes a more corporeal form and unleashes the Sinister Six—a team of super-baddies composed of villains Spider-man had defeated in the past—to wreak havoc on the city.
And steal shoes!
I kid you not. In a scene that would make the 60’s Batman TV show seem like high art, Arachne sings “Think Again,”—referring to the villain’s feelings toward Parker’s decision to hang up his webs—while her hench-women fit the stolen shoes onto her legs.
The song also triggers the Sinister Six, which are introduced via runway, like a fashion show. Apparently the I-am-not-only-a-female-but-one-with-many-feet-so-you-bet-your-ass-I’m-going-to-use-my-evil-powers-to-steal-footwear scene wasn’t ludicrous enough for Taymor. Her heinous half-dozen’s coming out party features each traipsing downstage, like a twisted Victoria’s Secret show. As they reach the ramps end, they terrorize and kill civilians, represented by—you guessed it—more puppets as an artistic means of conveying how nasty they are and to show that mankind is nothing but puppets controlled by Arachne and her lackeys.
The original group, which made its debut in Spider-Man’s first annual in the mid-sixties, included Dr. Octopus, Shocker, Vulture, Sandman, Mysterio and Kraven the Hunter. Over the ensuing years, the nefarious cabal would return in various iterations. Only Shocker and Kraven the Hunter remain in the musical’s evil assemblage. Joining them are Carnage, The Lizard, Swarm and another Taymor original, Swiss Miss.
The actual make-up of the group is inconsequential. Unlike Green Goblin, their personal histories are not integral to Spidey’s own. They merely represent evil run amok, so any villains would do, and Taymor selects those with which she feels she can get the most visual bang for her buck. Kraven and The Lizard allow the director to get back to her puppetry roots—so effectively utilized in The Lion King—with the former’s leonine vest assuming the illusion of a growling lion whenever he rears back in exultation and the latter’s reptilian alter ego literally bursting from Dr. Curt Connors’s lab coat in the shape of an inflatable lizard. Sparks fly from the Shocker’s body while Swarm and Carnage are notable only in the inanimate nature of their costumes. Each has unmoving tendrils swirling off them—Swarm’s represent bees, Carnage’s emulate the living symbiote of which his suit is composed.
My WTF moment in seeing “Swiss Miss” in the cast as a member of the Six was furthered by her appearance. She looked like the progeny of Grace Jones and a helicopter, a towering silver-clad Amazon with spinning blades as appendages. Upon hearing her name, all I could think of was the Heidi-esque spokespuppet for the hot chocolate mix. In fact, any mention of her moniker had me expecting the subsequent singsong “with mini marshmallows” from the vintage commercials. It wasn’t until the next day, that I realized that Taymor was playing upon a Swiss Army Knife with the creation of Swiss Miss.
Sorry, Julie. Not clever; just dumb.
Arachne also sends the city into darkness, a massive blackout whence the show’s title comes. Turning off the darkness means the return or triumph of light or, if I must spell it out to you, the triumph of good over evil. Ooh, how poetic, Julie!
It is at this point that the show transforms into a giant videogame. Towering screens, split like the pickets of a fence hang from the stage, on which the Sinister Six pose in a flurry of optical wizardry. Carnage costume swirls and coalesces around him; Swarm disassembles into the flying apian wave whence his name derives; Shocker shoots sparks; blah, blah, blah… ad nauseam. Even when Spider-Man finally returns, the defeat of the Six comes onscreen, and not even in a battle montage with our hero. Each villain blows up into a kaleidoscope of pixels. It may sound exciting, but it was nothing more than one would see at any booth at the Consumer Electronics Show or any news report on the annual event.
Hey, Julie! There’s a reason why I go to LIVE theater. If I wanted to see a monster-sized video, I’d go to an Imax movie—and spend a lot less, too! What? Did you finally run out of ideas? Go to the puppet well once too often? Was 65 million not enough?!!
To exacerbate the inanity of the onstage hijinks in the second half, Arachne inexplicably surrenders. Or rather, if there is a reason, it was unfathomable. She descends beneath the stage, Spider-Man poses in triumph and…
end of show.
There isn’t even a complimentary swing-by over the audience. In fact, Spider-Man doesn’t swing at all in the second half. There is no aerial battle royale. He doesn’t even take to the skies after he takes up the arachnid mantle once again. Arachne flies a bit, but quite honestly, Mary Poppins’s flight in her eponymous musical was much more exciting.
The second half of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark destroys any positives in the first half, replacing its wonder and thrill with bitter disappointment. Julie Taymor’s uncompromising love for style over substance is a good case for creativity needing restraint. Like her character Arachne, Taymor suffers from the tragic flaw of hubris. She would have done well to pay closer heed to the character placed in her hands and the motto he lives by: With great power must come great responsibility.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark gets a regrettable one spider.