By Caryn James | James on Screens June 15, 2011 at 2:05AM
After way more than $65 million, a near-death experience by one of the actors, the firing of director Julie Taymor and a windfall for late-night comedians, the newly refurbished Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark turns out to be a cheesy Vegas spectacle. To be blunt: Act I sucks. Really, really bad. Act II sucks less. Let me elaborate.
There was always something crazy-ambitious about the project. Before the first preview, Taymor said in an interview that she was grateful that Marvel was allowing the show to have its own vision. Putting Spider-Man and vision in the same thought is a stretch, but a daring one. I didn’t witness the delayed and tinkered with Taymor version, with the audience waiting for flying stunt spiders to fall from their harnesses - by all accounts it was muddled and confused – but if Taymor ever had a vision it’s gone. There is no trace of art in the banal Spider-man that finally opened tonight.
The story is simplistic and the set-up – about nerdy Peter Parker before a bite from a genetically mutated spider transforms him into a superhero – is tedious. The music is identifiably by Bono and the Edge, but often sounds like a wedding-band cover of U2 songs. The choreography is a laughable mix of hip-hop and Broadway.
The early scenes are nudged along by some of the show’s most tiresome songs, like “Bullying By Numbers,” in which tough kids (who look old for high school but not especially tough) pick on Peter. Reeve Carney is pleasantly appealing as Peter, but Jennifer Damiano is bland as his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson (already a bland enough character).
After they visit the lab of demented scientist Dr. Norman Osborn (Patrick Page) Peter wakes up on the ceiling and bounces off his bedroom walls (with a conspicuous harness around his waist) while singing “Bouncing Off the Walls.” Next to this literal-minded exercise, the early scenes with the mythological Arachne (T.V. Carpio) suspended above the stage as she weaves a dream-like spidery spell over Peter – a remnant of Taymor’s more complicated story – seems welcome.
“Rise Above,” the show’s best and most recognizable song, lands in Act I, but really the first half just marks time until the flying, just a few tantalizing swoops across the audience until Act II.
That second act plays as if it has been subjected to a genetic mutation of its own. The backdrop of Act I is comic-book flat, with the occasional word like POW! And BONK! plastered on the walls. The scenery of Act II seems to leap into the 21st century with giant video projections, which add some visual energy.
But we’re still left with a head-spinning, inexplicable mix of time frames. We know that Spider-Man is set in the present, because the bearish editor of the Daily Bugle, who unsuspectingly hires Peter to photograph Spider-Man, complains, “We’re fighting the internet, we’re fighting bloggers . . .we’re dinosaurs.” OK, they’re dinosaurs, maybe that’s why everyone in the newsroom is costumed for a 1930’s movie. It doesn’t explain why the gangsters Spider-Man chases - men whose heads are oversized, Taymor-trademark masks - are dressed from the '30’s too.
Act II also brings back Osborn transformed into the Green Goblin, a character who livens things up but makes no sense at all. Page now wears what looks like green scaly body armor, and his lips are painted black like a parody of KISS. He plays the piano, breaks the fourth wall by engaging the audience and is sort of likeable – the last thing a villain should be. He and a cast of mutants, including a man made of bees, sing the cheerful “A Freak Like Me,” a song added to the revamped show and one of its more entertaining numbers.
In a quieter moment, Peter and Mary Jane sing “If the World Should End” (the second-best song) while suspended on a fire escape high above the stage. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show that considered the mezzanine to be eye-level before, but those may be the best seats.
And yes, there is flying, a lot of it. From the orchestra seats you can see several Spideys in the wings, taking turns to swoop out and create the illusion that the Spider-Man is just that fast. He makes huge, soaring passes over the audience, and there is a climactic battle in the air between Spider-Man and the Goblin. If all you want is flying, you’ve got it. But a big Broadway show should be more than a high-tech circus act.
The most inventive touch may be in the Playbill credits, which read: “Original Direction by Julie Taymor.” Her replacement, Philip William McKinley, is “Creative Consultant.” The business and legal teams must have had fun with that.
And near the end, one of the cartoony backdrops includes the word SPLAT! against a free-form green shape; it looks exactly like the splattered-tomato symbol for a bad movie on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.
Here’s a rich Nightline piece, taped soon after the reconstituted Spider-Man began previews, which gives plenty of glimpses of the show and the costumes. Cynthia McFadden talks to Bono and the Edge; skip ahead to 7:30 in, and you can hear them toss Taymor under the bus. (And watch Neil Patrick Harris at the Tonys telling as many Spider-Man jokes as he can in 30 seconds here.)