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Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

Whine and Cheese:
Spider-Man’s Muddled Web

Book by Julie Taymor and Glen Berger, music & lyrics by Bono and The Edge
Foxwoods Theatre, New York City, N.Y.,
Saturday, December 11, 2010, (J–101&102; stalls aisle)
Directed by Julie Taymor

[NOTE: This review was written before the revamped version of the show opened.]

This is the Independence Day or Transformers of Broadway: big budget special effects, but substandard acting, piddling plot, and shallow script. Throw in a rocking songbook that sounds distinctly like U2 (though U2’s own albums tend to be distinctly different from each other, so I guess Spider-Man’s music is indistinctly U2), and you have an evening of entertainment and irritation in equal portions.

Granted that this night, the show, famously fraught with technical glitches, was just two-weeks into its preview run and exactly one month away from Opening Night [an Opening Night that never came for this initial version of the show]. The official opening reportedly might be pushed back again so that director Julie Taymor can make some cuts and rewrite the finale. That would be a good thing; right now the play ends with an awesome sense of “huh?”

This was due in part to the character of Peter Parker as played by Reeve Carney. He went from supernerd to superwhiner to supersop over the course of the play, all (on this night) with a weak voice. What, he didn't play superhero, too? Well, no: Spider-Man in action was played by a half-dozen stuntmen. But even when an unmasked Parker was wearing his Spidey suit, he came across as a wuss. The effect was devastating to the production. You can’t see why Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano) falls in love with Peter, and, while we can feel Parker’s pain (in fact, we got bludgeoned with it), we didn’t see the heroic character that’s the true measure of this particular superhero. As pointed out by the Geek Chorus—three fanboys and a fangirl who watch and sometimes insinuate themselves into the plot—Spider-Man is special because, other than that spider bite, he’s nobody special.

Thus, the two most important aspects of Spider-Man mythology—his everyman persona and the love story with Mary Jane—were muddled in this production. And then the second-half plot involving his psychological battle with Arachne is just plain muddle. Let’s see, she creates an illusion through electronic media that the world is in the grip of evildoers so that she can entrap Spider-Man to, I think, make him a doer of good again? Or does she want him for the sex? Or was Taymor aiming for a gender-reversal Phantom of the Opera? None of this was certain. But then, Arachne couldn’t get her metamorphosis button to work, so we never saw what she wanted to become. Understudy America Olivo filled in for Natalie Mendoza (out with a concussion from a stunt gone wrong), and vocally she was strong; but as with Parker and even Mary Jane, it was hard to tell whether it was the acting or the script that resulted in a not-so-mythic character.

Not the case with Patrick Page as Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin. His Goblin, talking like an evil Southern grandpa, was so great we were disappointed at his death just ahead of intermission, a disappointment repeated in the second half when we learned he was only an illusion and hadn’t really come back to life. Michael Mulheren was also a highlight as J. Jonah Jameson, one of the great characters of literature. Strangely, almost all his funny lines simply died with this audience.

The big highlight, of course, was Spider-Man himself. He flew over the stage, out over the audience and alighted on the balcony as the audience screamed (the circles are better seats than the orchestra for this production). He and the Green Goblin actually battled in midair right above us. And when Spider-Man landed in the aisle right next to me, that got my heart racing. Spider-Man, right there! And then, schwing, he’s flying up to the wall across the way. Even when Peter Parker is annoying, Spidey is still just too cool.

[After Taymor subsequently was removed as Spider-Man's director, the show was revamped. According to press reports, the Geek Chorus was dropped and the second half rewritten to diminish Arachne's role and give the Green Goblin more play.]

Eric Minton
December 13, 2010
[October 6, 2011]

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