(Note - this review is based on a ‘preview’ performance. However since they are charging the same admission price as the ‘real’ performances, I feel it’s fair game.)
A few years back, some demos from an attempt at a Batman musical were leaked to fans of the show’s would-be songwriter, Jim Steinman (best known for his collaborations with Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler; Broadway fans will recognize him as the lyricist for Whistle Down The Wind). While the songs were too vague to provide the listener with any firm grasp on what the musical’s story would be, one could recognize that they would make for fantastic Broadway numbers, spanning several styles (Joker sang a crazed Music Man esque rant, Batman and Catwoman had a duet in the vein of Phantom, etc) and combining story details with lyrics that simply sounded good in song. In short - while it seemed ridiculous, the idea of combining one of the best known superheroes with a Broadway show was seemingly a good one.
Unfortunately that show hasn’t happened, and barring an estimated minimum of four years’ worth of sold out performances of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, it probably never will. Spider-Man is arguably more popular than Batman to the world at large, and “Songs by U2” is (sadly) more of a ‘get’ than Steinman (who is currently at work bringing his opus Bat Out Of Hell to the stage, in a similar combination of theater, rock n roll and a circus). In short, if this doesn’t succeed, it’s not likely we’ll be seeing any other superheroes flexing their vocal chords in the area of 42nd and Broadway.
Well, from today, they have one month exactly to fix it as best as they can and put on a show that will continue to draw an audience beyond the morbidly curious, such as myself. I’m not exactly a Broadway fan (the costs keep me away more than anything else), but as someone who has been reading Spider-Man comics for the past 25 years, I had been keeping tabs on its lengthy production for a while now, assuming that I would just see it when it came to LA or something. But then it had its first preview, with reports of actors being injured? Press articles featuring principal creative forces having difficulty explaining what it was about, and a show so complicated that they had to retrofit a theater just to put it on? To hell with the cost, I had to see it!!! Luckily I was on the east coast for vacation, so an ebay auction and 250 mile drive later, I found myself at the Foxwoods Theater, witnessing the 9th preview performance of Julie Taymor’s newest opus.
The story, best I could figure out, involved four teens in the “real world” debating (or creating?) the true origin of Spider-Man, which isn’t the worst idea in the world - between the movies, the various iterations of the comic (i.e. Amazing vs Ultimate Spider-Man), and other mediums, his origin has been told and retold several times, and I liked the (potential) idea of getting the details mixed up. Sort of like Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy - the story has been told in every medium, but each had its own version. But this particular version involves Arachne, a mythological spider-WOMAN who was made that way by Athena, who was jealous of her loom powers. Uh….
Anyway, soon enough Peter Parker enters the story, and it becomes a bit familiar (though in keeping with the modern times, Gwen Stacy is out; Mary Jane is now the initial ‘dream girl’). Peter Parker, nerdy science expert, gets picked on by bullies, sucks up to teachers, and gets bitten by a spider on a science trip to Norman Osborn’s lab. After discovering that he now has the powers of a spider, he first uses those skills for personal gain, but ultimately takes responsibility after his Uncle Ben is killed and uses them to fight supervillains such as the Green Goblin.
However, there’s a big problem with the way this story is presented in the musical. You have to already know that story in order to make any sense out of what his happening during this first part of Act 1. Uncle Ben is in precisely one scene, mostly yelling at Peter (it precedes a song called “No More” that will remind fans of “Skid Row” from Little Shop of Horrors), and then dies a few minutes later after getting hit by a car*. He is never mentioned again. Aunt May appears once more, and neither appear to have much influence on anything Peter does in the play. Which is fine, if they want to re-imagine his origin, but tossing it in so haphazardly doesn’t work at all; fans will be outraged at how poorly these beloved characters are treated, and newcomers will just be confused what they had to do with anything - three lines does not a character make (random nameless reporters for The Daily Bugle have more lines). It’s also a little jarring to hear Norman Osborn say “I wish I had a son” (um, he does. His name is Harry, and has been part of every other iteration of the story). He has a wife though, for some reason.
It’s a problem that continues throughout the play. You thought Spider-Man 3 was overstuffed? In 2.5 hrs, we are treated to appearances by Green Goblin, Carnage, Lizard, Kraven, Electro, and even what I think was supposed to be Tombstone, along with the new villains Arachne, Swiss Miss, and Swarm. Save Arachne and Green Goblin, none of these characters are given any sort of proper introduction or even basic characterization, they just show up as the “Sinister Six” in Act II without any real explanation. I couldn’t even tell you what the hell Swiss Miss was supposed to be; my best guess would be a robotic Statue Of Liberty from the future with a few sharp weapons. Swarm, we are told, is made up out of “Nazi bees” (he is the creation of the four kids telling the story). OK. Even MJ is given a half-assed arc; all of a sudden she’s headlining a Broadway production of The Fly (cute, Ms. Taymor) - wasn’t she just in high school two songs ago? There is no clear indication of the passage of time, nor do the minor story points seem to connect - at one point MJ more or less dumps Peter, but the next time we see them together they are enjoying a date.
It doesn’t help that the songs aren’t particularly memorable, either. U2 may be great at creating iPod commercial-ready pop ditties (one of which, “Vertigo”, even makes a grating appearance), but they need help doing so for a Broadway show. Even a show I didn’t care for as a whole like Rent had plenty of songs that made me want to listen to the soundtrack. Here there are precisely three standouts: “D.I.Y. World”, sung mostly by Norman as he carries on about his various experiments; “Bouncin Off The Walls”, which Peter croons as he tries out his powers for the first time, and the title song, sung by Arachne as… uh… well, I have no idea what is going on in that scene, but it’s a beautiful ballad and easily one of the show’s highlights. Some of the other songs are fine, but for the most part they’re just plain dull, and worse, don’t really help further the story in any way. One could listen to say, Wicked and pretty much get the jist of the story even if they hadn’t seen the performance, but I think one would be hard-pressed to listen to the CD of Turn Off The Dark and provide a synopsis later (hell, even WATCHING the play I could barely do that). Also, come on, would it have killed them to figure out how to allow SPIDER-MAN to sing at least one song (much like the films, when masked, Spidey is pretty much a mute, a vast difference from his persona in the comics) in the SPIDER-MAN MUSICAL? Cut a hole in the mask or something!
However, I should note that this is not the fault of the actors. All of them were quite good and sounded even better. I was completely smitten with Jennifer Damiano as MJ, and Patrick Page as Norman/Green Goblin should be up for some nominations; hard to believe he wasn’t the originally cast actor (Alan Cumming was). The songs themselves may not be particularly good, but they at least SOUND like they are.
So the book and songs are a wash - it’s a total waste of time, right? Wrong. On a visual level, the show is incredible. Some of Julie Taymor’s trademark “it’s supposed to look fake” concepts aren’t entirely successful (is the old lady supposed to be a New Yorker cartoon come to life?), but the ever changing sets are worthy of every single Tony award possible; I don’t think the same set is ever in place for more than five minutes before another takes its place. The forced perspective New York highrises (Chrysler building) looked amazing even at my “all the way to the side” viewing angle, and I loved how it combined traditional set pieces with multimedia displays. One particular highlight found the Green Goblin appearing on multiple screens at once, and then slowly his image expanded into larger “windows” until each screen combined to make one giant cackling Goblin. And while I hated their usage in the show as a whole, I liked the idea of a live action Spider-Man “fighting” screen displays of Carnage, Electro, and the others (though it was a bit odd that Spidey basically killed them).
The aerial battles were also quite impressive. If you can, get seats in the “Flying Circle” as close to center as you can - Spidey and Goblin both fly right past you, dozens of feet above the orchestra seats. The action/fight scenes aren’t particularly long (and the reported “27 aerial stunt scenes” include Arachne dangling without any significant motion), but they are all spectacular, especially when slow-motion is simulated to depict heroes and villains alike flying back from hits. And while there have been reported problems with these scenes (actors being stranded in mid air, for example), once you see them you will 100% understand how easily something could go wrong, and walk away impressed that they were pulled off as flawlessly as they were, especially when Spidey flies across the theater and lands on the Goblin’s back during a key fight scene.
The costumes were hit and miss. I hated Goblin’s design when I saw pictures of it, however once I realized how bizarre the show itself was it made a bit more sense, and kudos to Page for performing in it as well as he did (best I could tell, Reeve Carney never actually played Spider-Man, just Peter). Arachne’s costume was also quite impressive, and again I applaud the actress (America Olivo, the understudy for Natalie Mendoza, who was injured on the first night and is still recuperating) for performing as wonderfully as she did in what looked like an awkward and distracting oversized costume. Spidey looked just as he does in the movies, however the “Sinister Six” villains (at least, the ones you’d recognize) were largely terrible. Everyone had giant heads, even Kraven (who is human looking). Electro looked like a kid in a Prince of Space costume, and the less said about Lizard’s “chest-burster” concept, the better. And come on, silver jumpsuited Osborn employees? What the hell?
The seats were comfortable. The playbill was easy to read (I don’t usually review plays - just making sure I cover all the bases here!).
Since they are still reworking the show, it’s possible some of these elements will be completely overhauled or removed entirely by the time it opens. My advice? Drop everything involving the Sinister Six and use the time to better explain Arachne’s motivations and Goblin’s 2nd act appearances (it’s a plot point that can easily be missed). This could also help get the show from a ridiculous 2:45 length to something closer to 2. I’d also drop Uncle Ben and Aunt May (and MJ’s dad, while they’re at it), since they have no real point in the story and their presence just adds to the general “busy” feeling of the show as a whole. The second act is currently a total misfire, with a plot that races along without any sense of the stakes involved or what anyone is even trying to accomplish (the only way to tell how far along you are in the plot of Act II is to count how many songs are left). Probably not much they can do about the songs, but with a more coherent story supporting them, they might fit better in the show as a whole. Fans may cry foul at anything that is “new”, but I sort of liked the basic concept behind Taymor’s story - I just had major problems with how it is currently being executed.
I’m not sure what possessed Ms. Taymor to take the most easily identifiable and relatable superhero of them all and place him at the center of such an abstract and often just plain bizarre story (did I mention one song was about Arachne’s shoes?), but hopefully there’s time to reign in some of the nonsense and upgrade this from a total mess to an interesting “alternative” for both Spider-Man and Broadway fans. And in the process give Batman a little hope that he might take the stage someday too.
*During intermission, one of the idiotic teen girls behind me who talked throughout most of the play ‘explained’ to her friends that “In the comics, Uncle Ben was shot by Sandman. They showed it in Spider-Man 2.” I still have a headache.