Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark – Musical Review
Remember the Spider-Man movies? There were three of them? They all starred doe-eyed Tobey Maguire as he saved doe-eyed Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and thwarted doe-eyed enemies? Nickleback’s Chad Kroeger had a song with Saliva’s Josey Scott called “Hero” in them that topped the VH1 video charts? Well, evidentially there were people for whom the big-screen adaptation of the comic book hero was too dark for, so to satiate the general public when everyone’s favorite wall-crawler debuted on Broadway last fall, his first order was to TURN OFF THE DARK. Joining him in this adventure are his
amazing friends bloodsucking parasites director Julie Taymor (The Lion King) and U2’s Bono and The Edge (that rock song from Batman Forever). But with a $65 Million Dollar investment at stake, could this new musical really be the worst thing to hit Broadway since rappers with CD-Rs?
Well, true believers, let me set the tone by explaining exactly when and how I had my dark turned off. My Dad (with whom I had seen all three Spider-Man films as well as, after a chance sighting, met Spider-Man creator Stan Lee with) and I were set to see a matinee screening literally one hour after the announcement of director Julie Taymor being fired. The critically-maligned show was going to go under a dramatic overhaul and we were going to be one of the last to see it in its originally abhorred state. Granted, the show has been in “previews” (performances that are open to the public to purchase tickets for that aren’t “official” screenings, basically the theatrical equivalent of the “do-over” option in Four Square) since last November and had undergone a few cuts already. Having friends who were in the Musical’s test audiences before the version I witnessed, I can say that I was fortunately spared both the calypso/reggae numbers and the original final scene where a civilian runs on stage, drops to his knees and yells “SPIDER-MAN!” before the curtain falls and everybody bows.* But before I tell you what I did see** I would like to reiterate PopularOpinions’ policy of not caring how faithful a work of art is to its original medium. An entertaining show is an entertaining show, so anything from Amazing Fantasy #15 onward did not affect my judgment.
First: the good. Act I is the Spider-Man origin story we all know and love. Peter Parker is a nerd who gets bit by a spider and I’m not going to continue this sentence as if you didn’t know the rest. But we don’t begin with Peter, but with the origin of spiders themselves in Greek mythology. Yes, the show is narrated by four huge comic nerds who want to write the best Spider-Man comic ever, so in a brainstorming session the female amongst them proposes beginning with the Greek myth of Arachne who Athena turned into the first spider. This would be lame had the actual opening number not visually been so breathtaking. The show looks incredible and the Cirque de Soliel-style visuals and overhead fight scenes are like nothing you’ll ever see in a Broadway theater. I can’t praise enough how endlessly enrapturing the visuals are. Along with that, you have a strong cast who really believes in what they’re doing and truly excel with performing things the medium of theater was never intended to do. My Father and I sat at the end of the first half (SPOILER ALERT: Spider-Man triumphs over the Green Goblin and saves the day) somewhat puzzled why the show was getting as absolutely decimated as it was.
Then we saw the second act.
Wow. You know how the first half was all origin story? Well, round two is nothing but Taymor and is it ever a confusing mess. Even as someone who just finished reading Ulysses, I found the convoluted hodgepodge of scenes to be exceedingly difficult to follow. We begin with the four nerds introducing the Sinister Six, a group consisting of five beloved Spider-Man villains and Taymor’s own creation ‘The Swiss Miss’ who is something of a female robot that the female nerd proudly boasts she “just made up.” Spidey defeats them and begins having dreams of Arachne, the Greek Spider-Woman-Thing from Act I, calling to him. He can’t decide if he wants to be with this woman-spider we’re to understand only exists in his dream or Mary-Jane and ultimately decides he doesn’t want to be Spider-Man anymore. He casts his costume away, causing Arachne to somehow brings herself into our world*** and has “illusions” of the Sinister Six and the Green Goblin bringing the ruckus until her face off with Peter Parker whose heart is too human to be her Spider so she frees the kidnapped Mary-Jane and everybody bows. Our four nerd narrators disappear halfway through this act and their quest to make the perfect issue isn’t given a proper payoff or even a blowoff. Oh, and did I mention that I can’t name you a single song? The music is completely forgettable as every song seems to blend together, save one number where**** Arachne thinks the only reason Parker wants to be with Mary-Jane is because she has two legs and wears shoes, leading us to a song-and-dance number about how great shoes are in the middle of a Spider-Man musical! The songs only get worse when you imagine a smug Bono having breakthrough after breakthrough, thinking he’s writing songs about Spider-Man and women’s shoes that are so good that America’s going to forgive the debt in Africa. Imagine my half-surprise when it came out that this number was Taymor’s favorite and after months of the show’s producers begging her to remove it, she gave them the ultimatum that if it was cut she would leave the production.
But seriously, outside the plot and the music, it’s great. I can’t stress enough how truly awe-inspiring the visuals are. The fact that I got to physically see Spider-Man swinging from balcony to balcony and actually get on top of a Goblin-Glider riding Green Goblin’s back as they duke it out blows my mind. The choreography is great and the performances are enough to keep things entertaining and make you really wish Act II made some semblance of sense. They’re expecting a gigantic overhaul to the show during it’s upcoming three-week closing, and when it returns it’s a safe bet you’re going to get a much better show. As for how it is now, seeing Spider-Man actually swinging all over the place is more than worth the rush.
We give Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark a Three Out of Five
So until next time…let’s agree to agree!
*Not a joke.
**As opposed to what I Deadsy, which is “The Key to Gramercy Park.”
***At this point the musical really makes absolutely no sense so you’re going to have to take my word on what I saw on a stage in front of me.
****Again, this is not a joke. This really happened. Somebody thought this was a good idea.