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A CurtainUp Review
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
By Elyse Sommer
See also Marvel Comics and Spider-Man
But the producers were not blind to the show's problems and decided to heed the advice of Norman Osmond, the scientist who caused Peter Parker to become Spider-Man and himself metamorphosed into the Green Goblin: "If man is going to survive, he's going to have to transform." And so in March they put Julie Taymor's baton in the hands of a new director with circus experience, Philip Wm. McKinley. To help Taymor's co-scriptwriter Glenn Berger realize his ideas for a simpler narrative, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a playwright and erstwhile Marvelcomic book writer, was brought aboard to help transform the mega-millian invalid into a show sturdy enough for a long life, not dependent on the paparazzi gossip factor to keep the box office buzzing.
Now the show is officially out of rehab. Spider-Man Turn off the Dark IS frozen. At last Friday's press preview, the Foxwood Theater was packed with critics like me who opted to wait for the show to be officially frozen and also brought back many of those who deemed it unfixable for another look (Spotted among the formr were Michael Feingold and John Simon; chief among the latter were the New York Times trasher-in-chief Ben Brantley and The Washington Post's Peter Marks).
Okay, enough with the background. Here's my take: Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark is not the best musical ever, but there's nothing messy or confusing about it. It's an enjoyable, easy to follow, fairly traditional romantic all-ages musical, with a hero rooted in an iconic comic book character to add the sort of fantasy that lends itself to all manner of stage glitz.
The romance is between high school nerd Peter Parker and Mary Joe Watson, the girl next door. The adventure entails his acquiring cling-to-the-wall, high flying super powers and web shooters able to fire off deadly strands of gloop. All this the result of being bitten by an irradiated spider. (The show's Less deadly paper strands at one point land in the laps of the audience).
Mr. Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa have managed to replace or repair the Julie Taymor plot elements and characters that muddled clarity and undermined the drama. A narrating Geek Chorus that came in for most of the negatives was completely deleted. The mythical goddess Arachne, who apparently upstaged Spider-Man in the earlier version, has been downsized into an occasionally appearing, benign guardian angel. She still gets to sing the quite lovely "Behold and Wonder." The staging of that song, which includes seven female ensemble members suspended from filmy sashes, is Lion King gorgeous. It makes it clear that this show doctoring is not as complete a transformation as that advocated Norman Osmond and executed via his own transformation into the scary Goblin.
The extensive surgery and scene re-arranging notwithstanding, Taymor's gift for creating breathtakingly imaginative stage pictures has not been tossed into the rubbish. The Taymor touch is also still evident in her maskS; George Tsypin's futuristic folding and unfolding sets; Daniel Ezrolow's athletic choreography; Kyle Cooper's scene enhancing projections and Eiko Ishioka's eye catching costumes; the whole ZAP! POW! SPLAT! comic book look.
The transformed musical benefits enormously from director Philip Wm. McKinley's extensive experience with circus productions. The accident prone flying sequences that made the previews newsworthy in all the wrong ways, now seem to be reasonably accident proof, even though still daringly close to the audience. What's more, once Peter emerges as Spider-Man, there's still enough of this gasp-inducing, head-turning soaring from stage to balcony and back to give audiences the circus-y spectacle they expect..
If Page's terrifically funny penultimate rendition of "I'll Take Manhattan," accompanying himself on a wonderfully weird green piano sounds more like a tune from an old-fashioned leave-them-humming musical, it is. That enduring, hummable hit was penned by Rodgers and Hart, not Bono and The Edge. Which brings us to the famous rock musicians' contribution and some other reasons Spider-Man Turn of the Dark is entertaining and but not musical theater perfection.
The musicians as conducted by Kimberly Grigsby do their best to make the Bono/The Edge score more suitable to musical theater than a rock concert. The already mentioned songs, as well as a few other numbers like "The Boy Falls From the Sky," do work as show tunes. That said, the music overall is not superstar quality, but more loud than laudable. The Foxwood's musically inhospitable sound system and the extreme miking rob even the excellent love duet "If the "World Should End" of its sweetness.
Excess also diminishes some of the scenery's wow! The images just keep coming at you to the point of overkill. The obviously new tongue-in-cheek references to the New York Post gossip columnist's relentless putdowns during the Daily Bugle scenes would best disappear if and when the show survives all its bad press. Furthermore, the references to the Bugle's competition from the Internet and Facebook don't really jibe with what appears to be a different era (as indicated by the women pounding out copy on portable typewriters rather than laptops or I-Pads). Fortunately Mulheren's editor Jones is so good that this out of synch stuff is no more a major misstep, much like Page's campiness.
Ultimately, the "doctoring" Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark has undergone has made it into a show with enough going for it so that it may well keep Peter Parker soaring to the Foxwood's rafters for a healthy run, even if not a record breaking old age.
But hold on. That golden age may still be in the show's future.
On the very day of Spider-Man 2.0's opening, The New York Times published an interview with Bono and Edge by Patrick Healy, a Times scribe who's done his bit to feed tidbits about the show's backstage travails to a gossip loving public. In that interview Bono is quoted as declaring the musical to be " just 90 percent complete." As the now actively involved superstar sees it, 10% of additional changes involving the relationship between Peter Parker and the Green Goblin will be done this summer.
Bono didn't say who the superhero would be to point a web-shooter at the currently frozen show and unfreeze it yet another time, and a second official opening. Maybe the Spider-Woman in the Cirque du Soleil's Zarcana over at Radio City Music Hall?
For anyone interested in Spider-Man's history as the superhero of 40 years of Marvel comic books that inspired Spiderman Turn of the Dark, read my background feature following the production notes is just a click away: Marvel Comics and Spider-Man
Marvel Comics and Spider-Man
To add to the reality of the easy to identify with Peter Parker, his everyday life was set in a specific location — 20 Ingram Street, in New York's tree-lined Queens neighborhood of Forest Hills. The atmosphere and look of Forest Hills High School had less of an inner city atmosphere and look than Midwood High. (It's also this writer's alma mater, as well as that of numerous show biz folks like Simon & Garfunkel).
One of the most popular and commercially successful superheroes ever, Spider-Man placed 3rd on IGN's Top 100 Comic Book Heroes of All Time in 2011. His multi-media appearances include animated and live-action television shows, syndicated newspaper comic strips and a successful series of films starring actor Tobey Maguire as the "friendly neighborhood" hero — and of course, currently, in the 9-years-in-the-making, $70 million dollar Broadway musical.
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