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In honor of the forthcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, I shall leave you with an incredibly timely review of the Broadway classic Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark!
I SURVIVED SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK! Seriously, we had to drive home through a blizzard on Boxing Day 2010. I pushed a Ford Focus out of a snowy parking lot & navigated by sticking my head out the passenger window. So here’s the spoiler free review: On the WTF? scale of 1-10, the musical was a solid 14. SPOILERS for a musical that’s been closed for years!!!
The best part of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is that it looks stupendous. Julie Taymor, Eiko Ishioka, and George Tyspin did great work on the award-worthy costumes and sets. (If you hate Taymor’s movies & stage productions, you have no business watching this show.) Our whiny Peter Parker for the evening was Matthew James Thomas not Reeve Carney. Jessica Damiano was good as Mary Jane. The real star of the show was Patrick Page as the Green Goblin. Even though he has a Southern drawl like Ted Turner and doesn’t look like the traditional version of the character (he’s got batwings like the alteverse GG from Spider-Man Unlimited), he gets all the best lines and does everything with aplomb. Michael Mulheren is also great as J. Jonah Jameson, but unfortunately he’s not given any songs.
The first act works as a mostly straightforward retelling of the origins of Spidey & the Green Goblin. The problem is that none of the songs are memorable, possibly because half of U2 sat this out. My favorite lyrics are “I watch the grass as it grows/ And fall asleep in my clothes/ But my shoes don’t fit!” There’s a scene where puny Parker gets beaten up by Flash Thompson’s pals to pop-up sound effects. As a fan of the 60’s Batman show, I was amused but could see why it would infuriate people. Peter compliments MJ on her performance in the school play but she feels she finds a new way to screw up each night. This musical is so meta.
Oscorp looks like it should be in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and is populated by mutant muppets. The mythic Arachne (played by Natalie Mendoza, Juno from The Descent) turns out to be the genetically modified spider that bites Peter at Oscorp. This is not so different than J. Michael Straczynski’s totemic stuff. I don’t have a problem with combining magic and sci-fi at all, but it’s terribly executed here. She gives Peter his Spider-Man suit because the Geek Chorus decide his Home Ec skills couldn’t have produced it. This was in the works for seven years, so I could see that Arachne (not Julia Carpenter) probably felt like a good idea when they started. JMS was doing totemic stuff and “The Other” was coming up, so they probably felt that Arachne could tie-in to the modern comics status quo as well as the Raimi movies. Too bad marvel didn’t tell them they were throwing all of that under the bus with “One More Day.”
Another unnecessary addition to the Spidey mythos is the Geek Chorus. They’re a bunch of nerds trying to tell the “ultimate” Spider-Man story or something. They’re totally unnecessary, since unlike ancient Greek plays, this musical actually has a special effects budget to show you all the cool stuff rather than telling you they happened offstage. (Although that’s exactly what they do for the first act climax since the death by piano they wrote was pretty Looney Tunes.) Aside from one tearing off a piece of backdrop to draw a physics diagram of Arachne landing on Peter, they add nothing to the show. They are named Grim Hunter (not Kraven’s son), Miss Arrow (not Marrow or The Other), Prof. Cobwell (who’s not as cool as Prof. Cowbell), & Jimmy-6 (the first five Jimmys died in rehearsal.)
After beating up an inflatable wrestler, Spider-Man refuses to do anything about Flash’s erratic driving. Immediately thereafter, Uncle Ben get run over by Flash. He had it coming since he ran into the middle of the road to stop the car with his bare hands. Peter feels guilty about not stopping the car when he had the chance and becomes Spider-Man to make amends. We are also spared Uncle Ben’s tiresome monologue about the responsibility of the powerful. This annoyed many fans, but I’m OK with it since it still gets the same result. We don’t see MJ breaking up with Flash, but it’s assumed he was sent up river for vehicular manslaughter.
The wire stunts were cool. We were about three rows back from where Spidey landed on the balcony. During a mid-air fight with the Green Goblin, the wires were tangled and they had to pause the show to get them down. While they were waiting, the stunt Spidey was showboating and Page clowned around to our delight. There’s a scene where Spidey swoops over Hammerhead & what could be Kingpin to web them up but the web net he dropped missed them completely. There are no flying stunts in act two, which is lame.
While act one was a tight origin story, act two goes completely off the rails. It should be titled Spider-Man: Jump the Shark. The geeks decide that it can’t be the ultimate Spidey story since he hasn’t fought his ultimate villain yet. They can’t even decide who his ultimate villain is, so they have a supervillain beauty pageant. They don’t provide much context as to who these characters are for the non-nerds in the audience.
Carnage gets the most comic accurate costume. He doesn’t get a song, even though he sang during murder sprees in “Maximum Carnage.” Kraven is the runner-up whose lion vest tummy roars astonishingly at the audience. The Lizard is a portly guy who transforms when the giant inflatable T-Rex under his labcoat expands. This is a neat practical effect, except that the human head is stuck betwixt the reptile parts so he looks like a guy wearing a horse costume. They don’t switch to a full Lizard costume. One of the chorus insists on Swarm being the ultimate foe because he’s made of “Nazi bees!” I can’t argue with that. Swarm is a yellow & black striped guy with light up bees affixed by tubes. Spidey defeats him with an old –timey bug sprayer. Electro has a glittery version of his classic suit with a full face mask and sparklers in his head and hands. Swiss Miss is there just because Miss Arrow made them up. Yup, the new foe created for the show that’s stirred up a hullaballoo has no character development and no point. Spidey defeats them all rather quickly, which is very disappointing.
Spidey is shown to have no sarcasm detector as he reenacts the most banal scenes from the overrated Spider-Man 2. During a nap, Arachne gives Peter a sexytime levitation dream on the Astral Plane where she explains that’s she’s chosen him to end her curse. She doesn’t actually explain how. She sings the eponymous song, which is about how Athene’s curse has forced her to live in darkness even though I’ve seen plenty of spiders active in the daytime. This makes Peter late for MJ’s lead role in The Fly play, much to both their chagrins. The Geek Chorus advise him not to tell her he’s Spider-Man because apparently they can directly interact with the proceedings. Peter gets frustrated & throws his Spidey suit in the trash, but there’s no looming red projection to mimic the classic cover to go along with it.
Arachne feels that Peter has slighted her by abandoning his Spidey identity, so she plots revenge. She wants to force peter back into his costume by creating chaos. Unfortunately, the Green Goblin & the “Sinister Six” have already been killed. This could’ve been avoided by not smushing the Green Goblin under a piano at the end of act one or having Harry take on his mantle and assembling the Sinister Six for revenge, but this isn’t a musical that relies on sensible transitions. (The coherent intentionally funny musical is The Spidey Project.) So she has to weave illusions of them destroying the world. Yes, the majority of the second act is just an illusion. Of course Spider-Man already has a foe that creates illusions. His name is Mysterio and he already looks like a Taymor/Ishioka collaboration! I sense that the show’s many misfortunes have all been the work of the snubbed Mysterio.
Arachne’s plot actually defies the Geek Chorus’s story in a moment that breaks the already tenuous fourth wall to give the musical’s target audience the finger. While MJ and Peter are dancing to “Vertigo” (one of many groan-worthy in-jokes), they share a kiss that is synched up to Arachne causing an illusory blackout she credits to the Sinister Seven. This blackout also blots out the sun but leaves TVs and radios unaffected. This leads to a cool video montage of the Sinister Seven destroying stuff. Carnage even lands on a billboard for Turn off the Dark, which either means that the illusion has spilled into the real world or the musical’s reality also is also hosting its own convoluted musical of the same name like a self-portrait incorporating more mirrors than the human psyche can comprehend. For some reason, Kraven didn’t appear on stage with his teammates during this sequence. J. Jonah Jameson is the only character unfooled by these shenanigans. Because he has no verification for any of the chaos, he only runs a report of nine shoe stores being robbed.
As it turns out, Arachne had her Furies turned spiders rob the shoe stores so she’d have shoes to wear. Then they sing a song about shoes. I have no idea why anyone ever thought this would be a good idea. This is exactly the thing that should’ve been cut the first week of rehearsals. Plus, Arachne disguises herself as a two-legger for her next scene so it’s totally pointless. She goes to the Daily Bugle to entice J. Jonah Jameson to run front page stories calling for Spidey’s return. Jameson is not enchanted by her spider sex pheromones, however, because he is awesome. She has to threaten him with physical violence before he abandons his journalistic integrity and disdain for the masked menace.
Meanwhile, Peter continues to eat canned pears with MJ instead of doing anything about the blackout or the rampaging rogues. I bet tiger hitting the jackpot is spectacular, but even I would’ve eventually considered doing some superheroing in the face of such unrelenting catastrophes. His bed has to combust with MJ on it before he decides to reclaim his costume form the Daily Bugle office. In doing so, it appears that his secret identity is revealed to Jameson. Even though he takes back his traditionally Spidey suit, he somehow ends up wearing a Smallville version of his costume. There’s a song equating Peter to Icarus for his hubris in not wanting to be Spidey.
He fights the Sinister Seven in a big budget version of “No, Goblin, YOU die!” from Universal Studios’ Spider-Man Rocks! Each villain menaces him on a TV screen. He punches them once and they explode. This makes no sense for Swarm since he can separate into individual bees. He eventually gets to Arachne, who has cocooned MJ. She tells Spidey he must break her curse by loving her or killing her. Again, the mechanics of this curse are still undefined. He agrees to live her on the Astral Plane as long as MJ is spared. His love for MJ shows that he still has too much humanity, so Arachne is thwarted. She dies or something. I don’t know how since the Geek Chorus wasn’t doing their job making sense of anything that happened in the second act. It ends on a very underwhelming note of a washed out Spider-Man curtain being unfurled.
The musical needs catchy music. Spidey’s & MJ’s songs were too maudlin. Why didn’t they recycle “Elevation?” This emo Peter doesn’t even do a jazz strut! I’d rather they covered the theme songs to the 60’s Spider-Man & The Spectacular Spider-Man than listen to anything Bono wrote except maybe the Green Goblin’s songs. “A Freak Like Me Needs Company” is its the most upbeat & memorable ditty. Each of the villains needs a song, especially Carnage & J. Jonah Jameson. They could borrow “AC/DC” from Starlight Express for Electro because Starlight Express is awesome.
The thing is that I could easily see how they could’ve avoided the train wreck. The first act is an almost perfect streamlined origin. They just need to deep six the Geek Chorus, Swiss Miss, and Arachne. The Sinister Six need to actually do something! A rousing climax to act two would be great. Maybe Riverdale’s Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa fixed Taymor’s & Glen Berger’s book for the non-preview showings?
Since this show was totally doomed, we rushed out to buy over-priced commemorative memorabilia. They still hadn’t made a souvenir program or a CD, but I got a shirt. They closed up the gift shop insanely fast after the show’s end so I don’t understand how they expected to make any money.
Even without the exorbitant cost, cast injuries, technical mishaps, & behind the scenes creative battles, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark would’ve crashed. (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog & “Mayhem of the Music Meister!” are proof, however, that superhero musicals can be stupendous providing NPH is available.) Any future superhero musicals will be less experimental, but they won’t be memorable for how unabashedly insane they are. It’s really a shame because the visuals for this were amazing.
Be seeing you!