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A CurtainUp "Non-Review"
How February 8th Made Theatrical History as a Theater Critics' Tea Party
By Elyse Sommer
In my first Spider-man-ia comment on this I said I didn't think the man was a psychic. I figured him to be an accountant even though my business manager who has a CPA and a Masters of Business degree assured me that no one needed such credentials to figure out that if audiences continue to buy full price (and often premium priced) tickets for five years, say through 2015, that the producers might end up looking like more savvy investors than those who put their faith in Bernie Madoff instead of Julie Taymor.
While the show is currently selling tickets only through May of this year, recent sales reports indicate that this still being tinkered with musical has been outselling Wicked. With many people coming with kids in tow and with the souvenier stand in the Foxwood lobby apparently doing well, there's enough discretionary income being spent to signal an improvement in the disheartening economy. After all, people able to pay $100 or more for theater tickets are more likely than not to be employed, and not at minimum wage either.
When I first wrote about all the sound and fury about the delayed Spider-Man opening in December only two publishers (Bloomberg News and Newsday) bought tickets for their theater critics to join the preview goers in order to write reviews masquerading as being part of the Spider-Man-as-news conversation rather than wait for the press invitations with "comped." tickets. Given that the print media are themselves besieged by predictions of their imminent demise, and frequently downsizing their arts and leisure staff, seeing any instance of critics being supported with money to cover a special situation was encouraging.
As of February 7th, almost a dozen of these journalistic belt tighteners (including leading papers in Chicago, Washington, DC, Toronto and London) strengthened this mild sign of optimism about their vigor and prosperity by refusing to let their critics be sidelined by the common man, gossip columnists, comedians and on-line chatter. In short, they bought tickets for their critics to get in what was no longer just theater reviewing but a cultural news event.
The ticket purchases were apparently made with everyone in synch about seeing the show to coincide, not with the current March 15th l opening date, but the previous February 7th one. This made it possible for a whole bunch of reviews to come out pretty much as they would for a show with a "regular" press agent sanctioned publishing date. The reviews published on February 8th in turn seeded a flurry of features about this flurry of pre-opening reviews so that this date may well go down in theatrical history as The Theater Critics' or First Nighters' Tea Party Rebellion.
As for the reviews, they may well be likened to a mass slaughter. Except for Elysa Gardner of USA, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark took a shellacking that made President Obama's recent experience with that kind of treatment seem like a pat on the back.
The make it or kill it critic, Ben Brantley of The New York Times led the theatrical Tea Party posse with a review that will test the theory about some shows being enough of an experience to be critic proof. Brantley justified his and his paper's decision to ignore the producers' claim that the show is still a work in progress by declaring it to be "so grievously broken in every respect that it is beyond repair." Try as he might, Mr. B. found practically nothing to like about book, music, choreography, not even the much buzzed about flying sequences. He likened the experience to often feeling "as if you were watching the installation of Christmas windows at a fancy department store". and at other times " like being on a soundstage where a music video is being filmed in the early 1980s." Except for an unanticipated glitch involving the dangling hero, the show lost its shock value for Brantley in the first 15 or 20 minutes, leaving him shocked only by its "sheer ineptitude."
Some of the other critics did soften their pans. New York Magazine's Scott Brown admitting to having a good time and David Cote of Time Out, who saw the show twice, saying that he "warmed to its strength and weaknesses " the second time and actually looked forward to more of the same for the third (and official) time. You'll find a one-minute mash-up of all the reviews if you click on the following YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPH7vZ3Rev8
The fact that the publicist of Mr. Brown's publication sent me (and I presume many other editors handling entertainment news) a release and link to the magazine's review illustrates how these pre-reviews immediately became part of the show as general rather than strictly theatrical news. On the other hand, while Mr. Cote is ready to grab the free tickets that come with press invitations to re-review the show after the "real " opening on March 15h (that is if that date holds, and if the press agents issue press invitations to these jump-the-gun critics), there's Mr. Brantley's agonized " How long before I'm out of here?" which may make him and some of the other naysayers feel as if they're being forced to have one drink too many.
On the other hand, if the show keeps running, even without being officially frozen, consider the potential ripple effect I foresaw after reading about Clyde Haberman's psychic bar contact. Critics may suffer from burnout from having to keep going back to give unofficial review-reports and there will be Spider-Man groupies who become addicted to seeing the show over and over again — which may cause extreme post-traumatic-Spider-man-ia. This may in turn have a positive ripple effect on the mental health profession which would devote many billable hours to treating those suffering Spider-man-ia's, most extreme symptoms a compulsion to fly by actually winging it out of windows and off bridges.
Postscript: In case you're wondering why I didn't join in the rush to review Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, I confess that, no matter how spectacularly presented, I'm not enamored of comic book characters anywhere except inside the covers of an old comic book — or as interestingly integrated into a really good story, like Michael Chabron's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. That said, and with opinions on the show so far widely circulated, one viewing will be enough for me and I opted to give the money I would have spent for a ticket to my favorite charity.