Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK. Please. Turn it off.

SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK is the little, red-spandexed engine that could, determined to subject itself to gleefully ill-wishing critics on March 15. Previous pipe-dream openings include February 7 and December 21, not to mention the initial preview period that was postponed nearly a year while the Hilton changed to the Foxwoods, and Julie Taymor & Co. struggled to create a semblance of coherence out of what will be recognized, for possibly all time, as The Hottest Mess to Ever Hit Broadway. Ever.

The likelihood of this spectacularly misguided show to ever open is slim, but if it does — most certainly only to prove that it can — it won’t last beyond the critical assailing it’s bound to receive. Thus, while Spidey has not yet had his red-carpet moment, and though, even as I write this, Taymor and her aerial designers scramble to juice up the finale with yet another flashy flying sequence, for all intents and purposes, this show is open. As open as it ever will be, at least. And thus I offer you  my “recap” or “response” (or whatever you want to call it except for “review”) to SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK (which maintains its inexplicable subtitle).

When you walk into a Broadway theatre two months after a show has gone into previews, and there is a marketing survey taped to your seat requesting you to detail the the moments that confuse you, your most/least favorite scenes, the elements that need work, aspects that are great… you know you’re in for a treat. A delicious, hot-chocolate-mess of a treat. Here, listed for your pleasure, are the yummiest and most unsatisfying morsels.

Yummiest Bits:

1. THE SPIDEY SHOP. I realize this isn’t technically part of the show, but it certainly adds to the dazzling experience and heightens the expectations of theSpidey Onesie spectacle you’re about to see when you walk into what can only be described as a terrificly obvious Disney Merchantainment knock-off. Not just a booth, but an actual shop, the variety and extent of merchandizing — Spidey onesies! For even the tiniest of Taymor-lovin’ tots! — did not fail to impress this enthusiast. I purchased a form-fitting, slightly see-through navy tee — how could I not? The Super-friendly Spidey Sales Associate informed me that it was the “sexiest” one, and that he wouldn’t mind waking up next to a fine Spidey fan who was wearing that and only that (sexual harassment is apparently included in the $40 price tag. Though I can’t say I minded, the t-shirt price was offensive).

2. THE PRE-SHOW SPEECH/APOLOGY/DEFENSE. One of the three executive producers — who can remember which? There are, after all, another 18 producers and associate producers  — built up the excitement to even greater heights when he opened the show with an explanation of what a preview performance is — changes are constantly happening, technical glitches are still being worked out, etc etc — and that THE DEPARTMENT OF LABOR HAS APPROVED ALL AERIAL STUNTS !! contained in the show!!. This last bit was followed by a burst of extremely enthusiastic applause, presumably by all the creepers like myself who attended largely to see if a wire would snap and Spidey would “fall from the sky,” as Bono and The Edge repeatedly hammer into the increasingly banal lyrics. I was officially on the edge of my seat.

3. COMIC-BOOK-LOOK. The design doesn’t entirely work, but the intention for the show to look like a comic is great, and could have been great fun: grey and black tones are punctuated with bursts of bright colors and 2-D sets are drawn like classic comics, complete with POWS! and KABLAMS! splashed boldly across backdrops. Unfortunately, much of it simply looks cheap (ironic considering the millions of dollars it took to stage and design), and the persistent technical glitches with the sloooooooooooooooooowly moving sets consistently detracted from the effect.

4. SPIDEY SOARS. Despite Yuckiest points #3 & #6 (see below), the aerial sequences are by far the show’s highlights, with multiple Spideys flying in, out, and over the audience, landing in the aisles (much to the horror/delight/panic of many audience members) and on top of the Green Goblin, fighting (ever-so-slooooooooowly) mid-air, etc. Perhaps these moments were so awesome because of the fear/morbid excitement that something may go dreadfully wrong and someone may plummet to the ground (this fear was entirely justified since during each aerial sequence, a man who was clearly one of the show’s riggers/technicians, came down the aisle and stood, intensely watching and waiting, until Spidey landed safely back on stage. It was amazing. And terrifying.) Regardless, these stunts are why folks came to see the show, and they largely deliver.

5. THE SINISTER SIX. Despite the unwelcome reminder of AIDA — the six villains are introduced via a catwalk-like strut downstage in a scene that is bizarrely similar to the fashion show number in that dreadful Disney musical — and the fact that none of them actually DO anything, and some of the costumes look plastic-y and cheap, I still kinda loved them. For this, I credit the projection designers who created brilliantly colored, fantastically drawn video sequences of the villains for their number “Sinistereo” (no, I don’t at all remember what the song is about), as well as my favorite piece of staging: when all six appear  as a stream of color above the black and white comic-city skyline, it was by far the most brilliant stage picture created in the show.

Yuckiest Bits:

1. NOTHING MAKES SENSE /THE GEEK CHORUS. Yes, you read that right: Geek, not Greek. It would be clever, except that it’s not. It’s actually one of the most obnoxiously pointless, yet regrettably necessary, aspects of the musical. Insinuating that the audience won’t be able to follow the simple Spidey action without the constant commentary from this nerdy, comic-book-lovin’ teen foursome  is insulting. Except that we really wouldn’t be able to follow the unintelligible plot at all without them. To the survey question “Thinking only about Act One, did you find anything confusing, hard to follow or not fully explained?” I responded: “Yes. Everything.” Nothing about Act One makes sense, except for the entirely unnecessary exposition: it is apparently imperative for us to understand that Peter Parker is a nerd and that he loves MJ and she, him, because there are no less than seven songs covering these two facts alone. That is nearly one-half of the song list. I was already so bored 30 seconds into the first one, “Bullying by Numbers,” in which — that’s right — Peter is bullied by his cruel, simple-minded classmates (yawn), that the six to follow nearly made me tear out my hair in exasperation. And I still don’t understand why Norman Osborn becomes The Green Goblin (though Patrick Page’s portrayal is the most energetic and entertaining of the cast), nor do I have the slightest clue why Arachne wants Peter so badly. Nor do I care. At all. I just wanna see some fast, fantastic action.

3. SLO-MO EVERYTHING. Unfortunately, nothing about this show is fast or thrilling, mostly due to the glacially paced….well, everything. When one of the Geeks complains that there should be “less talking, more fighting,” my head screamed “AMEN! FLY, SPIDEY, FLY!”  The problem, however, is that even the fighting occurs in slow motion, whether in the air, or on the side of a building, or on the flat surface of the stage. The choreography/direction needs major tightening/re-working and the cast suffers from too few fight calls. Not to mention that any and all “theatre magic” happens by means of entirely visible wires and crew members; Mary Poppins’s flight into the audience is vastly more impressive and theatrically satisfying.

4. POP-ROCK SCHLOCK. Add the banal lyrics to generic, oft cringe-inducing musical sequences, and you have one of the most indistinguishable scores — and I use that term loosely — heard since the fantastically ludicrous THE LORD OF THE RINGS musical, another spectacular musical mess. I’m still not sure if Jennifer Damiano (MJ) was off-pitch or if it was just horrible, horrible composition. Nothing against U2, but Bono and The Edge rather brilliantly demonstrate their inability to write for the theatre. The most theatrical of their songs is also the most ridiculous and unnecessary (though the bookwriters deserve much blame as well): “Deeply Furious” musicalizes Arachne and her “Furies” as they rob shoe stores (?) throughout the city to wreak havoc (?) because…? Huh?? At least the song had a driving beat and intensity that nearly all the rest lacked. Plus, those spider-ladies looked pretty cool.

5. TAYMOR REDUX. Ever see THE LION KING? If not, don’t worry, Craven the Hunter looks just like a juicehead Simba (Craven, by the way, was originally played by Christopher Tierney, the actor who was seriously injured when he fell from a platform in late December). How about ACROSS THE UNIVERSE? The military staging in “Pull the Trigger” is essentially a carbon copy of “I Want You,” but without the creepy-cool masks. But hey, Taymor’s signature masks are also represented here on the “Citizens” in one of the most interesting (which is not saying much), yet inexplicable numbers, “Rise Above.”  Basically, SPIDER-MAN is like a cheap musical review of all Taymor’s previous work.

6. NO ONE FALLS ON MY HEAD. Self-explanatory.

SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK isn’t nearly as thrilling a spectacle as I imagined it would be, nor did I experience the serious schadenfreude I hoped I would. Instead, I was forced to sit through a bafflingly incoherent plot set off by painfully stiff dialogue, about five too many Peter-looks-at-MJ-longingly rock-ballads, and seriously slow Spidey action. I wanted more. MORE color. MORE fighting. MORE flying. MORE crazy costumes. MORE cool tricks. MORE MORE MORE. Except for the book: I wanted LESS LESS LESS of that. No, SPIDER-MAN has not yet officially opened, so there’s a chance to trim all the fat (ie. 90% of the dialogue) and string together a coherent, if super-slim plot. More flying and spectacular stunts could, and should, be added. Superfluous characters and songs could be cut, or at least further developed/justified/harmonized. But really, what’s the point? People aren’t going to SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK to see a streamlined spectacle (that’s what Disney’s for). Folks are flocking to this show — which just out-grossed the shiny, super-spectacle WICKED — to see what a hot, hot mess it is. They want to laugh at over-earnest, under-written dialogue. They want to gleefully gasp as the show stops mid-song because a massively complicated set piece fails. They want to gape at the flying and fighting and falling.

No one wants to see Spidey succeed. They want to see him suffer. And suffer he does.

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8 comments on “SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK. Please. Turn it off.

  1. Rachel
    January 16, 2011

    I think you just hit the nail on the head of spidey’s coffin. Love it!

    Like

  2. brian
    January 16, 2011

    Still have a crush on you.
    (Blog.)
    (Posted.)

    Like

  3. Kate Manfredi
    January 16, 2011

    great article. Too bad that if it closes, saving so many people the pain of both being in it and watching it, apparently, so many people will be out of work.

    Like

    • Julie
      January 16, 2011

      Kate, while there were certainly painful parts (all those earnest ballads! oy!), a lot of it was great fun to watch if you go into it with the right expectations. But you’re right: if this show goes, lots of jobs go with it. On the other hand, a lot of people — cast, crew, audience members! — may be safer because of it. I personally hope it gets its opening…the reviews are going to be a blast to read.

      Like

  4. jennifer
    January 16, 2011

    Thoroughly enjoyed your response. I am least surprised that the music isn’t fit for broadway. I feel like most rock musicians who compose for musical theater just write a whole bunch of songs that sound exactly alike which gets super monotonous after, say, 2 of them. Glad to have the perspective, though, as I doubt I’ll be able to get up there before it closes. I really want to get to DC actually to see the shows Mary Zimmerman directed there (pretty much the only director that could make me want to see CANDIDE). Also I wish I couldve seen the oklahoma! At arena

    Like

    • Julie
      January 16, 2011

      Jennifer, thanks for your response! Like you, the one element I was least surprised about was the music. I agree with you and your assessment of rock musicals written by popular musicians. Most don’t have the musical background/knowledge in order to write effectively for the stage. That’s not to say that aren’t wonderful song writers generally; but this simply isn’t their medium (Elton Jon is one of the best examples of this).

      If you get up to DC to see those shows, I expect a full report! I hear that production of OKLAHOMA! is wonderful.

      Like

  5. Eric
    January 16, 2011

    I have a question. Who do you think this musical is supposed to appeal to? It’s clear the people behind it wanted to do it, but who is their target audience? Spider-man is a kids’ comic book character. Is this for them, teens, grownups, or what?

    I notice also that you don’t mention whether there is any stunt fighting (as opposed to wire work) in it. Is there any? Perhaps this is one of the ingredients which might have improved things that they didn’t deliver? I can’t imagine anyone doing any fighting in the crazy-ass costumes you picture, not to mention Spidey’s own mask, which would obscure peripheral vision.

    I think if they are beating to death the idea that Peter Parker loves Mary Jane it is because he never had any reason to love her in the movies nor, really, the comics either. He was infatuated with pure & perfect Gwen Stacy for years in the comics, till she was killed by the Green Goblin in a dramatic scene oddly partially-duplicated in the first movie featuring Mary Jane instead (who was not killed but rescued there on the Brooklyn Bridge — Gwen didn’t make it). Mary Jane in the comics was originally not a romantic interest but a friend, a kind of hot hippie chick who helped him thru his grief over Gwen’s death, who he apparently married because, well, they kind of just did after a while. The movies messed things up by having Peter meet Mary Jane and Gwen in the wrong order, so since Gwen never died in the movies, at no time has there been any particular reason why Peter and Mary Jane should have fallen deeply in love with each other, which is why A) the movie romance stuff between the two of them was dreadful also, B) the whole romance element between them has now been entirely retconned out of the comics and C) the forced-emotion stuff you mention appears to have been manufactured.

    So I guess what I am saying is if the thing was lacking in emotion it’s because they seem to have again missed out on the essential Spider-man dramatic hook, which was, in the comics, boy-meets-girl, villain-kills-girl, boy-beats-villain but becomes depressed superhero (then redheaded friend cheers him up some).

    So probably to make it more engaging he should have been singing “I miss Gwen,” over and over, instead of “I love Mary Jane.”

    Like

    • Julie
      January 17, 2011

      Eric, thanks for your thoughtful response.

      There was indeed fighting in addition to the wirework, but it was the cheesy POW!-like fighting in that they purposely made it look like the actors were not hitting each other at all. And like I said, everything was sloooooooooow. It just didn’t work. The pace needed to be quicker, tighter. But you’re right: the Sinister Six didn’t do much at all in those costumes. They were just there for aesthetic purposes, it seems.

      Regarding your point about the show being emotionally engaging: I didn’t go to SPIDER-MAN to be invested in characters/ relationships, and I don’t think anyone else attends for that reason either. The show is marketed as a high-flying spectacle that is super-designed (which is another reason why the exposition-heavy/convoluted book is so frustrating). So who’s the targeted audience? Tourists, Broadway/spectacle lovers. I don’t think it’s aimed at comic fans at all, quite honestly, and while in the beginning it was portrayed as “arty” (thanks to Taymor’s helming), I think that label was lost VERY quickly. And now, with all its “bad” press (injuries, technical problems, etc), I think people are just flocking to it in order to see Broadway’s biggest train wreck.

      Like

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This entry was posted on January 16, 2011 by in Broadway, Musical, Reviews, Theatre, Theatre Reviews.

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