So I finally got to see Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.
I use the word “finally”, although the show has only been in previews for a couple of months — still nearly the longest preview run of any show ever. Primarily, I use it because I’ve been writing about this show for nearly four years. And looking back at my predictions in my very first post about the show, there is indeed a song about Mary Jane’s eyes — so that is one point for me. I also predicted it would be great — hm, that is maybe one half a point. But NO ONE could have predicted the rest of the saga, from running out of money (after spending $60 million) to people breaking their backs, to Spider-women storming out in fear of their brains being bashed out and a parade of colorful incidents that have already made this one of the most legendary shows in Broadway history.
So how was it?
It was fun.
But my fun may not be your fun.
As a Spider-Man/Julie Taymor/U2 fan, I found much to occupy me, as did my companion for the evening, Archaia’s Stephen Christy who had invited me along for his own pilgrimage.
And as an added bonus, as I dreamed when I first wrote that story, lyricist/composer Bono was at the show!
I’ll return to all this ancillary drama in a bit, but I know you want to know about the show. There are two “acts” which normally in theater connote a degree of “rising action.” The first act generally sets up a situation and takes us to some kind of climax or crisis which the second “act” then plays out and resolves, resulting in a pleasurable, cathartic experience for the theater-goers.
Perhaps the greatest innovation of the Spider-Man musical is to completely reinvent this two-act structure. Instead of rising and commenting, the second act throws us into an entirely different play where the protagonist and concerns of the first act are merely bystanders to the struggle between a great theater director and her own muse.
In the first act of a tad under two hours we meet Peter Parker, a put upon nerd who is bullied by a dancing gang clad in different tones of yellow. To cheer himself up he goes to a science demonstration at OsCorp where a spider from an experiment that is…somehow…going to help, uh, stop……..climate change, he’s bitten and immediately gains the powers to hang in an aerial harness and flip around. When Norman Osborn — the wonderful stage veteran Patrick Page — decides to experiment himself and becomes a green guy in a spikey mask, Peter — now Spider-Man — and the Goblin must battle over the audience in a backdrop of spectacular New York inspired sets.
Despite some awkward moments and the intrusion of the much maligned Geek Chorus and spider-woman Arachne, the first act works. The sets, flying and staging are amazing. AMAZING. When one of the aerial Spider-Men starts swinging over the crowd and landing on the balcony, it’s fantastic — drawing you right in. The Green Goblin/Spidey fight looks dangerous and wasn’t entirely smooth, but is equally thrilling.
The singing is good, even though the songs barely stop or start but kind of rumble on in counterpoint to the action. The story sticks to the mythos for the most part and barrels on through. So far, so good.
And then…the second act dawns, Instead of amplifying the action of the first act, a whole new set of concerns arises focusing on Arachne, the spirit of the spider that bit Peter. What it is she wants never comes clear, but it seems to be his spider-ass. Her creation is her perfect mate, making this a bit of a Pygmalion myth. But spiders bite the heads off their mates!!!! Tough break, tiger! The entertaining Green Goblin dead, every time Peter furthers his romance with Mary Jane, Arachne does something shitty. When they first kiss, she puts the city in a blackout — God only know what she does when they “go all the way.” In the meantime, Arachne confides — while hanging 30 feet in the air in a thorax-like costume — that this is all taking place in the astral plane and she’s just created illusions of all of this.
As some critics have hinted — notably New York magazine’s Scott Brown — the second act really does seem to be all about Julie Taymor and her interest in myths, legends, and the creative process. The two strongest, smartest characters in the play are both Mary Sues — Miss Arrow, the main plot-mover in the Geek Chorus, and Arachne, who sings about love and her tortured heart. She’s the only character with much of an interior life, and actress T.V. Carpio throws herself into the role — and the air — with gusto.
Reeve Carney is good as Peter Parker — though his acting is weak, he has the pipes and the physicality for the role. Jennifer Damiano shows range and pep as Mary Jane. Page really steals the show as The Green Goblin — if he had been the antagonist for the whole show, much grief would have been spared.
The second act now has an actual ending — which it lacked earlier, as this Steve Bunche review from December shows. Instead of Arachne just backing down, now she kidnaps MJ, and she and Peter have an emotional confrontation until he does something that persuades her that he deserves to go on intact, thanks, instead of having his head bitten off in a spider mating ritual. I didn’t find that something or its staging very persuasive — the book still needs some work.
Despite the positively bizarro second act, Spider-Man entertains. The show we attended had no tech glitches, although the intermission seemed to go on for quite a while. The sets, costumes, and overall staging are beautiful and breathtaking — not necessarily worth $120 for a ticket, but definitely something you don’t see every day. I mean, you don’t see a dead skunk on the road every day either, but Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is better than a dead skunk on the road.
Picture taking wasn’t allowed during the show but we snapped a few anyway.
Still opening in March! Stay strong, Spider-Nan musical!
Stephen is psyched!
Not a very good picture of the proscenium curtain — there were a lot of drawings of Spider-Man throughout the show, which the program credited to Sia Balabanova and our own Rafael Kayanan. The art was very Romita-influenced, which worked.
Second act proscenium art.
Seriously, bring on Greg Horn! The merch was mostly cheap stuff with the awful, wispy key art.
That’s Bono and his wife, Ali. Honest!
So my great Spider-Man adventure is done. I have seen it for myself. This show is never going to be “good” but it does contain jaw-dropping moments of stagecraft and half of a familiar story. Some more tinkering with the second act — tinkering meaning setting it in the real world of the first act and not Taymor’s id — would improve it as much as can be done.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.