review: spider-man turn off the dark

3 comments

Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark

Music and Lyrics by Bono and The Edge
Book by Julie Taylor, Glen Berger & Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Original direction by Julie Taylor
[and after this the credits become too complex to unravel] 

Featuring Matt Caplan, TV Carpio, Jennifer Damiano, Isabel Keating
Foxwoods Theatre, 213 West 42st Street, New York
production web site: 
http://spidermanonbroadway.marvel.com/
opened June 14, 2011 and no end in sight

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 7, 2011 (matinée)

Masked Spidey and cartoon villains. Image by Sara Krulwich, The New York Times.

I sit at my matinée performance of STOTD and watch folks snap cell phone photos (and eventually receive chastising “no photo” reprimands from roving ushers), all of which leads me to consider yet again Hilton Als‘ apparently gleeful and clueless cell phone adventures at a performance of Uncle Vanya recently. (See one critic’s posting on the shenanigans here http://tinyurl.com/4ywvnb5.)  If a first string critic doesn’t follow the Equity and ethical rules, how can we hope to enforce the rules with civilian patrons?  I prepare myself, I await the wonder.  A comp ticket brings me into a show that has received more press through prolonged preview periods its eventual long-delayed June 2011 opening than any other show in recent memory.  And now after a day or so to process the experience, I remain aghast at the expense and rambling misadventures apparent on the stage of the Foxwoods Theatre.

Part cartoon, part noir visuals, part Halloween show.  Peter Parker (Matt Caplan for my performance), high schooler and orphan and eventual super hero, reports on spider myth and science to open the show and Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano) provides his fellow frustrated yearning love interest and daughter of alcoholic (but what happens to her Dad after the single noir-y family life number “No More”?).  Teenaged “Bulllies” have names we don’t hear but read in the credits, and perform a number so derivative of West Side Story and Grease (without a clear point of view) that the mind wanders. And this is in the first 20 minutes of the show.  On a class trip the school kids meet scientist Norman Osborn (Patrick Page) who conducts unsafe human experiments and turns himself into a Green Goblin and in the process kills his wife and, I suppose we are to believe, provides the evil motivation for the rest of the ride.  Isabel Keating plays Peter’s Aunt May and teacher Mrs. Bribrock and a host of other costumed characters as unfortunate cartoons.  The evil doer is vanquished (or is he … I can’t recall now).  Spidey flies out into the audience at random times, careening from balcony to stage right ledge, with mechanical purpose.  And my performance is complete with a technical snafu and delay (flying guide wires caught up on the cardboard-y Chrysler Building) that results in some of the most enthusiastic reactions from the audience.  Yea, the show goes on.  And oh my goodness, the show goes on.

I spend the next three hours thinking of other movies and theatre experiences that may have informed this pastiche creation directly, or just augment my sensory experience personally.

Fred Astaire in love in Royal Wedding (1951)
Donald O’Connor goes for the joke in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

When Peter begins to feel the transforming power of the spider venom to which he was exposed in Doctor Osborn’s lab, he is up in his bedroom, hemmed in by cartoonish exaggerated perspective walls and ceiling, to sing “Bouncing Off the Walls”.  The image brings to mind Fred Astaire dancing, wordlessly and gleefully in Royal Wedding (1951).  I also can’t help but think of Donald O’Connor‘s marvelous performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh” among movie set props in Singin’ In the Rain (1952).  Astaire dances transported by love; O’Connor dances and careens around the movie set inspired by clowning and seeking a laugh.  And Peter in his room pumps his arms and does nothing theatrical.  Among the hundreds of moments missed, mis-guided.  We have a theme.

Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall. Press event 24 May 2011. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

When our Arachne (T.V. Carpio) guiding spirit, transformed from the image out of Greek myth generated during Peter’s initial book report, appears to sing to him in “Rise Above”, I am reminded of my press preview response to Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall (see full post here: http://wp.me/pHkrs-1ff). We were allowed to snap photos on May 24, 2011 and mine appears here.  Webbing and all —  the currently running Cirque du Soleil show indeed does achieve a more evocative and powerful spidey image than is created in Spiderman, as I suspected months ago.  And without words (or words that can be understood), the Cirque version is more enmeshed (sure, take the pun) with the story than the spider queen Arachne images created here.

Suzanne (Meryl Streep) hanging tough and lying down in Postcards from the Edge (1990).

And a final image and connection is inspired by a set design that enchants initially then goes oddly, cheaply, lastingly, unnecessarily wrong.  Late in the show we find the evil Green Goblin atop the Chrysler Building — or a nearby building as the Chrysler facade is used as a surface lowered from the ceiling, unfolded with sharp gargoyle edges that catch things, um, such as  wires for the flying characters.  We have our perspective inverted to start this scene … we in the audience are looking down at the street upstage as if we were atop the building.  The street below is our upstage back wall, and tiny taxis run by in both directions.  Cute.  What starts out as twee and a bit enchanting becomes unnecessarily complex and in fact stops the show, all snags and edges and Green Goblin suspended and announcement that action will be resumed when stage hands unhook the apparatus snags.  All air removed from any momentum that had been created plotwise.  And I recall another forced perspective scene from a favorite movie Postcards from the Edge (1990) in which our actress hero Suzanne is acting in a cheap cop adventure movie, on a set using a similar forced perspective, laying on her stomach on a set made to look vertical — that is used for humor rather than action gone terribly terribly wrong.  In fact, I wonder what Carrie Fisher might have done to tweak this particular Spidey script?

Jokes that have long been listed in reviews of this self-referential mess (costs of 75 million dollars and a poke at the New York Post) are still in the show and have little resonance this late in the run.  The show now just is and needs to stand on its own merits.  The challenges are in big machine cartoon posturing, characters with unclear motivation, and misguided direction in small moments.  An example of a small moment gone terribly wrong: the ballad “No More” as a song of adolescent yearning to escape family and poverty is sung as Peter and MJ solos then blended into a duet from their separate households.  This song is unbelievably undercut by misguided direction — two yearning solos are suddenly and finally played as a duet to one another — very Danny and Sandy and “Hopelessly Devoted” in Grease, but it makes no sense here.

I’m still waiting for the wonder.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 9, 2011)

3 comments on “review: spider-man turn off the dark”

  1. “Spider-man Turn Off The Dark” is actually a true wonder to behold. With its innovative scenery, choreography, music, acting, and audience participation of Spider-man himself, leave me wanting to come back for a fifth time. Very entertaining show and talented enthusiastic cast!!! Professionally yours, Super laundry bag (Super Hero For The Arts)

  2. Spidey is Mighty!!! I love how this show enfolds you with wonderful scenery, music, choreography, and a new creative look at the amazing Spider-man story. Looking forward to seeing this “electriflying” musical again. Great for ages 8 to 108, and the flying sequences are the BEST on Broadway!!! Super Laundry Bag (Super Hero For The Arts) :)

  3. Yeah I collect comics. But let me ask the obvious. Is this a Broadway show or a Las Vegas spectacle? This does not mean the public might not enjoy it. But is it the right venue? Is Broadway too snooty for a super hero musical?

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