Those who’ve listened to the podcasts know that I am no stranger to theatre (<—the right way to spell it). So naturally, when I took my trip to New York last month, it would have been a crime against the humanities to not see a Broadway show. Of course, those who also know me personally know that next to film and theatre, I’m heavily influenced by comic books. And against the better judgement of my theatre friends, and anyone who saw the show, I decided that the first ever broadway show I would see would be none other than Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. And what did I think of this much talked-about (read: disparaged) musical?
I went into the experience trying to be as open-minded as possible, knowing full well that what I was about to observe was clearly an effort by Marvel to exploit an untapped area of revenue. There was a Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark gift shop; need I say more? I also did my best to keep my inner theatre snob from beating the living crap out of my inner fanboy, and vice-versa. Twelve rows from the stage, there I was with my aunt, Patty, who’d been gracious enough to take time to accompany to this Wednesday matinee. The anticipation and nerves started to set in. Just before the lights darkened and the scrim went down, I couldn’t help but notice that I was surrounded by parents and children who I’m pretty sure were no more than 12. Here we go.
The show opens with a spotlight on Peter Parker (Jason Gotay), who is about the deliver a presentation on Arachne, the mythical woman who used her loom to mock the gods, and was punished by being given 6 additional limbs and cursed to weave webs for eternity (or so the show purports). The opening number displays this myth as Parker is delivering the presentation. Arachne sings the opening song while suspended 50 feet up in the air on a platform. Several aerial silk performers begin swinging back and forth towards the audience, with silk veils dropping down in between them as they go. They were weaving! I have only one word for it: breathtaking. The presentation ends, and we see Parker interact with Mary Jane Watson (Rebecca Faulkenberry) for the first time. Gotay makes Parker’s nerdy rambling work quite well with Faulkenberry’s polite but terse responses, making for entertainingly awkward moments. I was looking forward to seeing more of their relationship unfold; however, it gets put on hold by songs that take too long to get to the point, or that stand out stylistically.
Anyone familiar with Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films will be able to know 80% of plot of the show: boy meets girl, boy gets bitten by spider owned by billionaire, boy loses uncle, boy becomes superhero, billionaire becomes villain, boy loses girl, hero and villain duke out, villain dies, boy gets the girl back. So what’s the deal? Why has this show gotten so much flack?
First of all, the show takes liberties with character backstories and major storylines. Shocking, I know. For example, they omitted Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin’s son Harry from the story completely, and have it made so that he and his wife, Emily (Laura Beth Wells), never had children. Critical? No. Off-pissing to fanboys? YES, although, I maintain my neutrality.
For those who want to know, though, here are the three major and minor changes they made:
- Arachne is reincorporated as a mentoring spirit to Peter along his journey, implying that Peter was some how “chosen” to become Spider-Man.
- The Sinister Six were not villains with their own stories, but rather Oscorp employees who get kidnapped and subjected to the same chemical treatments that make Norman Osborn (Robert Cuccioli…more on him in a second) into the Green Goblin. They were demoted to glorified henchmen.
- The Green Goblin is a mutation, not a persona. He has no “costume;” the green “enhancements” are part of his permanent transformation. He has no glider either; he sprouts bat-like wings when he needs to fly. Thankfully, the pumpkin bombs are still there.
All of these changes I was mostly okay with, because it cut out what would have easily been another 30-60 minutes of exposition. As it is, the show runs two and half hours with intermission. However, aside from the inconsistencies with the source material, they made stylistic choices that are easy to disagree with.
That brings me to my next point: there were moments of campiness that did not need to be there. For example, when we first see Spider-Man nabbing bad guys, the bad guys take the form of over-the-top, Dick Tracy-esqe gangsters. I get it, it’s a comic book adaptation. That being said: REALLY? It felt very out of place to me. The camp did work, however, with the Robert Cuccioli’s portrayal of the Green Goblin. It was not uncommon for him to break the fourth wall and joke around with the audience. Granted, he was taking over the role from the production’s original actor, Patrick Page, but he brought a flair to the second act of the show that made evil entertaining, and made the other campy elements easier to accept.
THEATRE NERD TANGENT: Robert Cuccioli was Dr. Jekyll (and naturally, Mr. Hyde) in the original Broadway cast of Jekyll & Hyde, a fact that I flipped out at when I saw him in the program (J&H is one of my favorites). When the Goblin got sinister, he sounded like Mr. Hyde! I loved it! Okay, back to the review.
Even though the book by Glen Berger, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and the show’s original director Julie Taymor was lacking at times, the music by U2’s Bono and the Edge was pretty damn good. As with many musicals, there are always going to be weaker songs. Thankfully, the good songs out-weigh the bad ones. To me, the best song in the show was “Rise Above.” You can check out the song sung by the production’s original Spider-Man, Mary Jane, and Arachne (Reeve Carvey, TV Carpio and Jennifer Damiano, respectively) here if you want to taste of what the show was like:
Julie Taymor’s directing was…let’s just say esoteric. Being a student of both theatre and film, I was taught that virtually every play or movie, all of its elements are in service to the story. Most of the time, Taymor makes sure that happens. Given that Taymor has a background in mask-making and puppetry, it’s not a shock that she would incorporate highly stylized costumes and literally larger-than-life character masks. These elements played better to those 12 year olds in the audience than to the adults. The expressionist, deliberately two-dimensional sets look like they’re lifted straight from the comics, which could have failed miserably, but didn’t.
For those who don’t know, Taymor was removed from the production during previews, and was replaced by Philip William McKinley, who got “additional direction by” credit. McKinley is widely considered the reason why the show pulled itself together, and made it watchable.
Walking out of the Foxwoods Theatre, I was humming songs from the show. This is just me, but I feel like that’s a pretty good sign that the show’s not terrible.
My Verdict: It was pretty good, but far from perfect.
For those who are interested in seeing how McKinley’s and Taymor’s visions unfolded, you can see this show in its Broadway form until January 4, its final performance date. Those with a strong inner child and sense of curiosity, but don’t have the funds to get to New York, can wait until the show moves to Las Vegas in 2014.