Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
“Oh what a tangled web we weave…” Spidey is on Broadway, though it will not officially open until (at the moment) January 11. With that, let me make the disclaimer that this review is of the show’s second preview. And they’ve had no out of town tryout. I say this because, though it may sound like I’m making excuses (and maybe I am, because I really want to like this show and for it to be good), this show is far from complete and still needs a lot of work.
At the very first preview, held on Sunday, November 28, the show ran almost four hours, including intermission and several long holds to fix technical problems. My fellow audience members and I had better luck on Wednesday. (This was only their second preview because the show did not play on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon. Apparently they never intended to play on Monday or Tuesday nights, knowing they’d need rehearsal time to fix things; deep into the rehearsal period on Tuesday, they realized they needed the day on Wednesday in order to be ready for Wednesday night’s preview.) The show still clocked in at a little too long (three hours, including intermission) but this time included only one very brief pause for fixes.
Let’s begin. I want to note that this marked my first time in the Foxwoods Theatre (formerly known as the Hilton Theatre and the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, among several other names), which has, in recent years, been home to Young Frankenstein and Ragtime (the original, not last season’s revival). It’s a huge, opulent theatre, more akin to the houses I used to visit in South Florida, like the Kravis or Broward Centers, when a tour would come through town than a typical Broadway house. At 1,932 seats, it has the largest seating capacity on Broadway. (Wicked’s Gershwin theatre is second, with 1,809. A major difference between the two largest houses is that when you walk into the Gershwin, much as it is adorned with Wicked paraphernalia, you can still feel and see the history of the theatre; not so with the Foxwoods.) It is nice, though, to have a large lobby area so folks who like to get there early (like me) can mill about inside until the house opens, rather than waiting on a line snaking around the block.
I took my seat in the “Flying Circle” (normally called the dress circle and also, more commonly, known as the mezzanine) and began taking in the stage. (I think the flying circle is better than the orchestra for this show, particularly because of the aerial stunts.) A sort of lattice-work of webbing comes out onto the stage right and left thrusts. Stretched out as the “curtain” we see a huge scrim emblazoned with Spider-Man’s visage, a falling Mary Jane (and the Brooklyn Bridge), a menacing Green Goblin and (and this was the surprising part) the show’s full title, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. (Getting into the comic book mode, I made a little sketch in my notes!) I’ve never been to a show for which its title was on the curtain. At first I thought this was totally odd and even a little gauche. But upon further reflection, I think it ties in nicely with the way visionary director Julie Taymor is trying to blend comic book elements with live theatre.
What about the actual show? Well, to be brief: There’s a lot of window dressing but nothing in the store. But, you know, dear readers, that brevity is not my forte, so here we go.
The first act, which included that short, three-minute technical pause, was about 90 minutes – very long for a first act. It didn’t seem too tedious to sit through because the first act was packed with lots of aerial stunts and other goings on. Unfortunately, the second act, about an hour, lacked a lot of technical impressiveness. (It wasn’t totally without, but the spectacle paled in comparison.) This made the second act feel like it was lagging.
And that was a major problem with the show: The pacing. Of course, some of this is likely attributable to the fact that I was watching the second preview. Things are still being worked and one of those things may be the pacing. But this brings me to something much more problematic: The story doesn’t land.
Spidey’s been around for a long time so Taymor had a pretty deep well from which to draw storylines. In what seems to be an attempt to inject something new and fresh into the story, she introduces Arachne, whose purpose in the show seems superfluous. (Same goes for The Sinister Six, including Carnage who looks a lot like Venom.) It takes way too much exposition, mostly supplied by the equally unnecessary Geek Chorus (not a typo), and both the Chorus’s and Arachne’s interruptions in the show really slow it down. While trying to create a unique theatrical experience and technically awe-inspiring show, Taymor (who wrote the book with Glen Berger) seems to have skimped on the story, which seems scattered and tentative. There is no pathos here, and anyone who’s read the comics or even seen the movies knows that there’s a lode to mine.
Some of the clunkiness of the book and the show may have to do with the timing (of my seeing it, that is). Much of what doesn’t work may be fixed by the time it opens. For example, the end of act one, particularly right after the Green Goblin’s fall (this is after a thrilling aerial duel between Spidey and the Goblin, taking place just a few feet away from me in the flying circle – very cool!) the falling action (in the literary sense, not his actual fall) is terribly anticlimactic. I couldn’t tell if this didn’t work for me because (1) it actually didn’t work, technically; (2) the direction needs tinkering; or (3) it just doesn’t work for me. My guess (and hope – I really want this to be good) is that it’s the first possibility.
But some of the clunkiness may not be fixed, as it seems to be part of Taymor’s grand design, and not just a lighting cue. When Peter Parker first accepts his great responsibility (after having fun, in the number “Bouncing Off the Walls,” accepting his great power), he sets off on a saving spree throughout New York City, bounding from building to building (or, in this case, from the stage to the mez to the balcony – again, very cool!). After the aerial stunts, there’s one more moment in which a cardboard cutout of Spidey (obviously much higher tech than that, but something in that vein) comes out of the wings, with his hand outstretched to catch a cardboard cutout of a falling baby. This was totally unnecessary and, for me, took away from the awesome spectacle of the just finished aerial sensation.
There were a lot of these “huh?” moments in the show. The ending of Peter Parker’s big, moment of truth number “The Boy Falls From the Sky” left me with my head cocked and thinking, “Huh? That’s the end?” And even the final moment of the show was disappointingly anticlimactic. For me, it represented a missed opportunity at one last thrill. Again, this may change during previews.
You may have noticed that I’ve yet to mention the music, written by U2’s Bono and The Edge. (One exception is “The Boy Falls From the Sky,” which is credited as lyrics by Bono and The Edge and music by U2.) If you’ve ever listened to U2, you know these Irish lads can write songs. You know that their lyrics and music can be transcendent. If you’ve seen U2 in concert or have watched It Might Get Loud, you know what The Edge can do with a guitar. There’s something he does with his effects that make it sound like his guitar is sparkling. This is all to say that the music that was there was good – some was even great – but there wasn’t enough.
Too many of the “songs” were so short that they played more like musical interludes or samples of songs not yet finished. There were only a few full-length songs and those were good…which makes it all the more disappointing that there wasn’t more. At first listen, most of the snippets are forgettable (though they definitely have that U2/Edge sparkle to them) and possibly because of a poor sound design, I had trouble deciphering a lot of the lyrics, especially over the rockin’ guitar riffs. But, there were some songs that – as songs – really worked. (I make the stipulation because the song in the show may not be there yet, but the song itself is.) My favorite was probably the lovely, wistful “If the World Should End,” a rock ballad which Mary Jane sings to Peter in act two. (Up to that point, we didn’t hear enough of the talented Jennifer Damiano, who’s dyed her hair red to play the fiery MJ.) “Bullying by Numbers,” in act one, was also good and for a few reasons:
- It works within the context of the show and its staging didn’t leave me bewildered.
- This song was the first indication in the show that Bono and The Edge can really write in someone else’s voice, and can write good songs that depart from the U2 milieu.
- This number really integrated the live theatrical experience – or even just the musical experience – with Spidey’s comic book roots, complete with “ka-boom” and “pow” bubbles popping up as Peter Parker takes a beating from The Bullies, including Matt Caplan’s Flash.
I don’t know how much the book or score will be worked on during this preview period. Generally, that’s most of what changes for a show during this time but, as I mentioned earlier, there seems to be a nearly exclusive focus on the tech so I’m not holding my breath.
Most of the performances are good – none that I’d write home about, though. (Well, with the exception of the remarkable athleticism of the swinging Spider-Men – goodness gracious, get these boys into Cirque.) Once again, this may be a result of it being previews and ongoing rehearsals. Damiano is good and feisty as MJ, but she’s not given enough to work with. As written, her character seems a little one dimensional. Patrick Page does a fine job as Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin, but I have one question: When did Osborn become Colonel Sanders? Page gives Osborn this old, southern gentleman accent that seems completely out of left field. (Was this in the comic? I don’t remember Willem Dafoe being southern.)
And our main man, Reeve Carney as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, is engaging and has a good voice. He’s both likable as nerdy Pete and believable as super Spidey. His vocal chops seem up for the task, with a nice combination of Broadway technique and rock star scratch. One thing that seemed a little odd (and this is nit-picky, but hey…) is that when he was singing a solo, like during “The Boy Falls From the Sky,” he held his body in a thoroughly awkward way. He was standing in a way that made him look like he was having stomach cramps. He looked uncomfortable. I don’t know if he’s uncomfortable singing without a guitar in his hand (like my guy John Gallagher, Jr.), but if that’s the case he needs to do a better job of being in character and finding some stage business to keep him from looking so strained. (Speaking, sort of, of Johnny, if my guy can perform his incredibly demanding role in American Idiot eight times a week, I don’t know why Carney needs an alternate on the payroll. From what I can tell, Carney does very little aerial work, which is to say he doesn’t engage in enough physical work, or vocal work for that matter, doesn’t do an inordinate amount of work to warrant an alternate. Just saying.)
With all of that said, it was still a theatrical experience worth having. In both the New York Magazine and 60 Minutes profile, Julie Taymor talked about wanting to push further the boundaries of what theatre – Broadway – can be. The aerial feats definitely accomplish that. It was incredible to have the thrill of watching Spidey swing about the city on celluloid translate so satisfyingly to the stage (actually, practically my seat!). The technical accomplishments of this show cannot be denied and, depending upon your taste, may be worth the price of admission. Still, I think the core of the show needs work. And I just may swing back in to the Foxwoods after opening to see if the job’s been done.
Visit spidermanonbroadway.com for videos (including one of Stan Lee himself talking about the show) and to purchase tickets.
A little light-hearted bonus: Check out this “exclusive preview” of Spider-Man on Conan: