California Literary Review

Theater Review: Spider-man: Turn off the Dark

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June 20th, 2011 at 2:12 pm

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Theater poster: SPIDER-MAN: Turn off the Dark

Creative Consultant: Philip Wm. McKinley
Original Direction by: Julie Taymor

Music and Lyrics by Bono and The Edge
Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger, & Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Choreography and Aerial Choreography by: Daniel Ezralow with additional choreography by: Chase Brock

Location: Foxwoods Theatre, 214 W. 43rd St.

Scenic Design: George Tsypin
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Costume Design: Eiko Ishioka
Sound Design: Jonathan Deans

Starring: Reeve Carney, Jennifer Damiano, T.V. Carpio, Patrick Page

CLR Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark

Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano in a scene from Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark
© Jacob Cohl


Not Much to ‘Marvel’ At

“You can change your mind, but you cannot change your heart.”

So sings Peter Parker, and he’d be one to know. In the newest iteration of Spider-man: Turn off the Dark—which, after 183 preview performances, has finally opened on Broadway—banal lyrics such as these are all too common. Despite the fact that the producers of this spectacle have been changing their minds for months now, throwing out directors and story lines, reworking songs and dance numbers and dialogue, the heart of this superhero musical flutters weakly, pumping worn out clichés—and millions of dollars—through its veins.

As the Green Goblin croons cannily at the beginning of Act Two, in a rare moment of clarity, this is a “65 million dollar circus tragedy.”

So what does $65 million (“Well, more like $75 million…”) buy, if not a decent script? Some pretty cool special effects. With a team of stunt doubles swooping down over the audience and a set that reinvents itself throughout the show in truly ingenious ways, there are visual thrills to be had. The first hint of spectacle, when women hanging from yellow ribbons fly out towards the audience to weave Arachne’s web, is momentarily stunning. In the second act, the set unfolds like a larger-than-life pop-up book to reveal the dizzying bird’s-eye view of a New York avenue from the top of the Chrysler Building.

These more astonishing visual effects are combined (not always successfully) with a production design informed by Spidey’s comic book origins. Onomatopoeic words (a spiky-lettered POW!, a scribbled SPLAT!) flash brightly across the backdrop; scenery and animated action sequences are projected onto ceiling-high panels that weave gracefully about the stage; and when Spider-man plummets in slow-motion from the rafters, one can imagine his descent on paper, his fall captured across white panel frames. Bank robbers with oversized rubber masks wear pinstriped suits and carry moneybags labeled with dollar signs, and the Sinister Six are more amusing than menacing in their chintzy costumes.

This uneasy admixture of mythic expanse and comic book camp could perhaps be in part the result of the musical’s tortured history—though by most accounts, the production was a tangled web well before director Julie Taymor’s first rendition of Spider-man’s saga was reimagined. Rooted in Greek mythology, Taymor’s early vision included a “Geek Chorus” and a more-present Arachne (T.V. Carpio), and—possibly—endeavored to be more than a simple comic book story. It was also, to most critics, incomprehensible.

Now, the narrative has been streamlined. The hero’s journey is a familiar one: a geeky, unpopular boy acquires supernatural powers that are both a gift and a great burden; of course, he gets the girl of his dreams in the end. Such simplicity might have been welcome, but the new directors of Spider-man seem to have fled frantically from Taymor’s wildly unsuccessful attempts at originality; the bland terrain they now inhabit is well-trod. The dialogue here is mostly predictable and insipid, the characters flatter than the three-dimensional sets. Some of the music, by Bono and The Edge, is respectable, but a lot is pretty generic. The aerial choreography is exciting, but the stage-bound dancing entirely uninventive.

The one exception to this strident mediocrity is Patrick Page as the Green Goblin, who relishes in every potentially humorous moment he is given—whether it is singing a twisted version of Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan” with urbane wit (while tapping his talons against a green piano), or glaring murderously into his phone as he waits for the automated voicemail to conclude (he is trying to record a sinister death threat).

Patrick Page, Spider-man Turn Off The Dark

Patrick Page in a scene from Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark
© Jacob Cohl

As for the stars of the show? It’s hard to fault Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano (Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, respectively): Damiano’s injects Mary Jane with clear-headed intelligence, and the duet the two sing on a rusty fire-escape is genuinely sweet. If only they were given more to work with.

Ultimately, this Spider-man feels a lot like the deluge of superhero movies we get every summer, in which CGI is substituted for imagination. In one of the few funny quips of the night, the ruthless newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson derides a possible headline with exasperation: “Man in Tights Saves Child?” he asks disbelievingly. “That’s the plot of the Nutcracker!”

It’s a good one-liner, but the producer’s might have learned something from this charming ballet. The biggest moment of most Nutcracker‘s is when the Christmas tree starts to grow, dwarfing the young dancer below. It’s hardly a $65 million dollar effect, and the tree usually looks like it’s made of cardboard. But it is magical—and it is the young girl, staring in awe at its high-reaching branches, that makes it real.

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