“Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” opened on June 14, 2011. It ran for a total of 1066 performances, closing on January 04, 2014. Below is my review upon its official opening. Scroll below the review for an update.
At the beginning of the second act of Spider-Man 2.0, the evil Green Goblin explains how he was transformed from scientist Norman Osborne to genetic mutant: It took weeks and cost $65 million – “well, more like $75 million,” he says in a cackle that sounds like a cross between Foghorn Leghorn and Harvey Fierstein.
This is an inside joke, or at least it would be an inside joke if the making of “Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark” were not the most publicized Broadway backstage story in history. The superhero musical has been plagued with superlatives: the most expensive show ever to appear on Broadway (the tab is now up to, yes, about $75 million); one of the longest in gestation (nine years, with its opening scheduled a half dozen times); the show with the longest number of previews in Broadway history (182!); and, when critics got tired of waiting for the official opening, one of the worst-reviewed musicals ever to appear on the Great White Way. It is surely the most ridiculed.
“Spider-Man” has been troubled in a disturbing variety of ways. There were the injuries, followed by government investigations and citations. There were also so many technical glitches that caused delays during preview performances that Patrick Page, who plays Osborne/Goblin, would fill the waits with mocking ad-libs. Somebody recognized a good thing, because a taste of Page’s ad-libs are now incorporated into the new, improved “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.”
And there is no question that the musical, which is finally opening tonight, is improved, vastly so, after the producers in effect fired the original director, Julie Taymor, hired a new creative team, and shut down the show for three weeks to reboot. The plot now is more coherent, and more familiar. Twenty minutes have been trimmed from the running time, several songs removed, several more reworked, and a new song added. The Julie Taymor whole-cloth inventions have either been eliminated (the “Geek Chorus”) or sidelined: Arachne, the female spider of Greek mythology, has fewer songs, and has been turned from wicked to wondrous — no longer Spider-Man’s nemesis but part of Peter Parker’s inner/dream life.
When the musical begins, Peter is delivering a class report on spiders, reading from a pile of index cards, and it is to illustrate that report that we first see Arachne (T.V. Carpio) and her entourage, spider-women dressed like monks in orange descending from the rafters on huge rolls of orange cloth and then swaying back and forth as they weave an over-sized orange place mat.
Best of all, Patrick Page’s Green Goblin is given more to do, including that new song, “A Freak Like Me,” a funky comic ditty with a danceable beat that is something of a showstopper – except, thankfully, the show does not stop anymore.
So does this mean that “Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark” is fixed? Will it last forever, recoup its investment, sweep the Tonys in 2012, spawn progeny in Vegas and Sydney and the West End? Time and ticket sales will tell whether the show becomes a lasting commercial success. But, while Spider-Man is no longer a catastrophe, neither did I find it the thrill that the hype would have you believe.
Spider-Man now begins and ends with Peter Parker (Reeve Carney), and focuses on his relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano), whom he has loved since the second grade, with a secondary focus on Peter’s relationship with Dr. Norman Osborn, whom Peter has admired. It is in the good scientist’s lab where Peter is bitten by the super-spider and transformed into Spider-Man, and the same DNA lab experiments turn Dr. Osburn until the Green Goblin, Spider-Man’s chief antagonist.
All of this is now relatively straightforward, and it is a less distracting frame for what is by far the best thing about this show: the visuals. I thought this when I saw an earlier preview performance, and the most magical aspect of Spider-Man for me remains the series of awesome images, among them the little subway train chugging across the Queensboro Bridge, Peter Parker literally bouncing against the red walls of his room (while the walls themselves bounce) as he turns into Spider-Man, the fight atop the Chrysler Building in vertiginous perspective, with the little cars speeding by way underneath as if we too were in the sky. That fight, between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, which also involves much flying over the orchestra, is an electrifying moment, especially now that it more intelligently serves as a climax for the whole show. And it is only one of several exhilarating scenes. Another is the first appearance some 50 minutes into the show of Spider-Man in full costume, accompanied by leaps, flips and somersaults by the Spidey-clad ensemble. The visual spectacle and the impressive gymnastics may be enough for some theatergoers, and it will not matter to them that there is little else about this musical that is outright exciting.
Indeed, too much about “Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark” seems…off. There is an inconsistency in tone and even era: The Daily Bugle editor J Jonah Jameson (Michael Mulheren) talks about blogs and the Internet, but he and his cronies are dressed in the striped double-breasted suits and fedoras of the 1940’s. Dr. Osborne and his lab assistants wear full-length silver lame lab coats like a 1950’s science-fiction B movie. Nods to a comic book sensibility compete with grand mythologizing left over from the Taymor playbook. The songs are melodious and surely sound pleasing if played individually, say, on American Idol or The Tony Awards broadcast; songwriters Bono and The Edge have been part of U2, one of the best-selling bands in popular music, for more than three decades. But the score seems to suffer from what one might call the Paul Simon syndrome. Simon had been popular just as long when he wrote “The Capeman” for Broadway, which flopped. The songs for “Spider-Man” do not add up to a distinctive and coherent theatrical journey.
Most of the attempted humor falls flat; many lines have the rhythm of a joke without actually being funny. The only exception is Page’s Green Goblin, who can be hilarious; watch while he tries to make a threatening telephone call and gets voice mail. The choreography is often a muddle. This is most evident with the Sinister Six, monsters who were ridiculous in Spider-Man 1.0, prancing around as if mutant models on a runway, and are only slightly less ridiculous now. Now, yes, they supposedly menace citizens before Spider-Man dispatches them, but the staging is sloppy and unimaginative, and the mammoth video projections of them and the Green Goblin are just annoying. The mute mutants are not really menacing at all; they are nothing more than their costumes, which wouldn’t get a second look at the annual Village Halloween parade.
Even the much-ballyhooed cutting-edge stagecraft grows almost tiresome. How many times do we need to see Spider-Man fly over our heads and into the balcony? Why are so many of the scenes staged in mid-air? A sweet moment between Peter and Mary Jane, where they sing “If The World Should End” (the song they sang during the Tony Awards) takes place on what is supposed to be a fire escape, but it is actually more like a window washer’s scaffold suspended maybe 30 feet above the stage.
This is an example of the misplaced priorities of a show whose guiding principle seems to have been: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess — and when it’s not worth doing, do that to excess too.
Given all they have gone through over the past year, and what they go through at every performance, the actors deserve medals for daring and endurance. Through no fault of their own, none of them especially stands out, except for Patrick Page.
Even though the show has now opened, Bono and The Edge have given interviews saying they feel it’s 90 percent there, heavily implying that they still see it as a work in progress. Perhaps, like Spider-Man the comic book character — a teenage loser whose sudden super-powers don’t just save the city, but help him to find himself — these super-stars will put together a complete winner by the time Spider-Man turns 50. Spider-Man was created in August, 1962. So what’s another year?
Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark
Music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge
Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Original direction by Julie Taymor; Creative consultant, Philip Wm. McKinley Choreography and aerial choreography by David Ezralow, additional choreography by Chase Brock
Scenic design by George Tsypin, lighting design by Donald Holder, costume design by Eiko Ishioka, sound design by Jonathan Deans, projection design by Kyle Cooper
Cast: Reeve Carney as Peter Parker/Spider-Man,cJennifer Damiano as Mary Jane Watson,T.V. Carpio as Arachne,cPatrick Page as „Norman Osborn/Green Goblin Michael Mulheren, Ken Marks, Isabel Keating, Jeb Brown, Matthew James Thomas, Laura Beth Wells, Matt Caplan, Dwayne Clark, Luther Creek, Kevin Aubin, Gerald Avery, Collin Baja, Marcus Bellamy, Emmanuel Brown, Jessica Leigh Brown, Daniel Curry, Erin Elliott, Craig Henningsen, Dana Marie Ingraham, Ayo Jackson, Joshua Kobak, Megan Lewis, Ari Loeb, Natalie Lomonte, Kevin Loomis, Kristin Martin, Jodi McFadden, Bethany Moore, Kristen Faith Oei, Jennifer Christine Perry, Kyle Post, Brandon Rubendall, Sean Samuels, Dollar Tan, Joey Taranto, and Christopher W. Tierney.
Running time: About two and a half hours, with a 15-minute intermission
Ticket prices: $67.50 to $140
Five Years Later
By the time it closed, the musical based on a beloved Marvel comic book character broke all sorts of records, both good and bad. It was the fastest show to be seen by a million theatergoers (by the time it ended, some two million saw it on 42nd Street.) It also had the longest preview period (182 performances) with the largest number of scheduled and canceled opening nights in Broadway history. It set records for the highest attendance and the greatest box office receipts at any Broadway show in a single week (17,375 theatergoers; $2,941,790.20 in receipts.) It was the most costly Broadway musical ever produced (initially $75 million) and, although it took in more than $200 million at the box office, it is likely to be the biggest money-loser (reportedly as much as $60 million) that ever played on the Great White Way. It is also surely the most critically panned Broadway musical (twice) ever to have so long a run. At the same time, both scenic designer George Tsypin and costume designer Eiko Ishioka were nominated for Tony Awards, and Patrick Page for a Drama Desk Award.
Are there any lessons to be learned? “Before something can be brilliant, it first has to competent” is at the top of the list by Glen Berger, who with Taymor and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is credited as the author of the musical (with Bono and The Edge of U2 as the composers and lyricists.) Berger published the tell-all book Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.
When the producers announced it was closing, restauranteur Joe Allen issued a statement: “A lot of people have been asking if we are going to put SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark on the flop wall, so let me say, once and for all: absolutely not. Any show that plays for three years on Broadway, providing steady employment to members of the theater community and pumping money into the local economy, is no failure in my book.”
The theater where Spider-Man ran, the Foxwoods, named after a casino, has been renamed the Lyric. Its current tenant is Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour.
Patrick Page continues his brilliant career, currently as Hades in Hadestown.