There was so much chaos at Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark that it was hard to give an honest assessment of the show’s worth. I’m not talking about the now-infamous musical, but the audience attending. About fifty people strolled in after-curtain, keeping whatever was happening onstage hidden by seat-clamoring tourists. More havoc stirred when the couple behind me decided to have an open discussion about their shopping bags and how best to store them. I suggested they put them over their heads to muffle their obnoxious voices.
Once the crowd settled in (well, sort of—I haven’t seen this many people jump up from their seats since “The Price Is Right”), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Reeve Carney) was singing a tune called “Bouncing off the Walls,” and, with the help of several cables, impressively scaling his bedroom. Here, more unintentional distractions surfaced, as my eye wandered to the stage hands clearly visible in the wings. (Didn’t they—and the audience—spend enough money on this musical to figure out a way to hide the help?)
By the time I got used to the people behind the curtains, I realized why I had paid so much attention to the distractions; there’s nothing happening on the Foxwoods Theatre stage to keep you remotely interested. At times Spider-Man and all of his doubles fly around the theater, but that has no connection to the flat, one-dimensional story in front of you.
No one gives a good performance in this show, starting with Bono and The Edge’s thomp-vacuous songs. Carney and his Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano) do their best in what’s been handed to them, and I give them credit for not scaling their dressing room walls to get out of Dodge. As the Green Goblin, Patrick Page looks uncomfortable in his suit, a cheap-looking green number that resembles The Creature from the Black Lagoon combined with one of those corny aliens from “Lost in Space.” He’s neither scary nor particularly funny, and his songs leave you before their overly miked rhythms hit your seats.
Julie Taymor is credited as the Original Director, and I don’t know how much of this production resembles her vision. I do know that whoever came up with the idea of having Spider-Man toss what looks like Silly String at the villains should be demoted. What’s harder to understand is that, at some point, there was a strong enough vision that many people thought it would be smart to bring this creature to Broadway. The onstage choreography by Daniel Esralow and Chase Brock looks like hip-hop meets Bootcamp class (remember when Broadway had dancing?), and the costumes by Eiko Ishioka bring back wonderful memories…of “H.R. Pufnstuf.”
There is a plot, and most of us know the basics, thanks to the films and comic strips. Peter gets bitten by a spider, develops supernatural powers, falls in love with the girl next door, saves Manhattan from evil-doers, and goes head-to-head with the main villain. There are some amazing design elements in this show, thanks to George Tsypin, who dazzles with a Chrysler Building layout that gives us a view looking down onto the street. His work, and the screen projections by Howard Werner, are by far the most admirable aspects of the production.
The second act is more entertaining, and there’s even a good chuckle when Page’s Green Goblin gets put on hold with an operator and hears a snippet of U2’s “Beautiful Day.” The joke’s almost ruined shortly thereafter when the group’s “Vertigo” is played full volume in a nightclub scene. Understatement has never been a U2 trademark, but where they actually went right in this show was to keep the song count to a minimum. The music isn’t good, but at least they don’t keep pushing reprises into your brain.
Act II’s also when most of the aerial stunts take place, and they’re impressive. The men fly to the mezzanine and balcony levels, and even hit the orchestra aisle. These scenes are heightened by an unavoidable carnival-ride effect; similar to riding the Cyclone at Coney Island (and by now, this attraction feels almost as old), you can’t help but worry just a bit that something’s going to break and an actor’s going to crash into a wall—or you.
The magic of Broadway isn’t all that different than the magic of cinema. You have to suspend your disbelief and get swept away. “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” never lets you escape because of its built-in limitations. By choosing to turn the show into a ride, the creators forgot the area where movies have the real edge; they can hide the wires. When every cable is plopped in front of you, there’s no magician at work; just mechanics. Had someone turned this comic strip into “Blue Man Spider Group” or “Spider-Stomp” or “Cirque Du So-Rachnid” it might have succeeded. As is, the show doesn’t have a leg to stand on, let alone eight.
For tickets and more information, visit the Spider-Man website. All photos: Jacob Cohl.