Nobody needs an introduction to Spider-Man after decades of comics and three blockbuster films (a reboot is under way). But Julie Taymor is determined to rework this eighth-told tale tale into mythic stature. The epic musical Turn Off the Dark’s spectacular failure comes down to its creators’ inability to realize what they could do with a beloved property with built-in mainstream appeal.
Usually, it would be a treat to see an idiosyncratic artist like Taymor apply her tribal fetishes and archetypes to a larger-than-life Spider-Man musical. But Turn Off the Dark is an incompetent, aimless re-imagining of an iconic character through flaccid mythic tropes, nerve-grating cheesy jokes and a substandard Andrew Lloyd Webber score from Bono and the Edge. The show's ancillary pyrotechnics, including the infamous high-flying wire stunts, are flat-out tedious. Turn Off the Dark’s biggest crime is that its flamboyance is in the service of uninspired storytelling. Nothing can save Taymor’s exhausting $65-million catastrophe now.
Turn Off the Dark starts off with the bombast required of a project this grandiose. Spider-Man (Matthew James Thomas) races in slow motion to save the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano), from the evil Green Goblin. This familiar scenario is staged for operatic significance: Spider-Man runs to rescue Mary Jane as if moving through invisible molasses. He arrives seconds too late to stop her from plummeting: a giant, billboard-sized cut-out of the Green Goblin descends from stage right, cutting the rope holding Mary Jane in mid-air. This sequence will be replayed later; Taymor could have used it as the thematic center of her musical. Instead, she wastes half the show setting up her all-too-familiar hero in a more perfunctory and goofy than authoritative way.
For those of you living under a mountain of rocks: high school nerd Peter Parker (Thomas) is bitten by a radioactive spider on a school trip. Confused about the range of his new super-powers, Parker tries to make a quick buck by jumping into the wrestling ring, and single-handedly defeats Bonesaw McGraw (a character taken from Sam Raimi’s 2002 film). Parker’s Uncle Ben (Ken Marks), his surrogate father, dies trying to stop a mugger (another Raimi update), leaving Parker with a new sense of purpose. Come intermission, Parker will have fought and defeated his nemesis, Green Goblin (Patrick Page, by far the show's most engaging performer).
Taymor rushes through this scenario, acknowledging that the audience has already heard this story by using short-hand images to speed up the process. Nevertheless, she and co-writer Glenn Berger are slavishly married to that tired stock plot, grinding it out with only a few memorable flourishes, as when Peter wrestles with Bonesaw as a hulking blow-up doll.
Turn Off the Dark’s routine plot is ostensibly why Taymor’s musical is so jokey: she might as well have a little fun. But when the majority of a 2 1/2 hour production featuring drawn-out, uninspired musical set pieces (during “Bullying By Numbers,” Parker is beat up by singing jocks) over-uses whimsical ancillary details to trace over a generic stock plot, what might have been endearing kitsch becomes just irritating.
Taymor’s elaborate production lacks a unique or coherent take on the title character. None of the show’s cast (with the exception of Page) stands out. Without a cogent thematic center, Turn Off the Dark’s second half feels scattershot, even absurd. The show’s lavish set pieces are overshadowed by Barnum & Bailey stunt work: four landing platforms in the
New VictoryFoxwood Theater’s mezzanine and nose-bleed section allow the swinging Spidey to land after thrusting his pelvis in theatergoers' faces.
And therein lies the rub: there’s no center to Turn off the Dark, no point where it doesn’t seem like a wildly eccentric way to sell more Spider-crap. Revolving vertical stage platforms and enjoyably garish costumes look extraordinary, but who cares when they only serve to buttress a frenzied and unintelligible plot?
Take Arachne. First, she loves Spiderman. Then she hates Spiderman! She’s a jealous lover floating around the astral plane! A predecessor to our web-headed superhero! A symbol of Peter’s inner turmoil! And the lead dancer in a dance number involving ten-legged spider-girls, who run around the stage with four extra-sets of marionette legs each (all the better to spread their legs and make over-heated lascivious gestures).
Mostly, Arachne’s an emblem of the show’s stillborn emphasis on showmanship over content. Her role helped to spur actress Natalie Mendoza to leave the production, after her stunt double fell and broke several ribs while performing harness stuntwork. Problems continue to plague that role: the show stalled during the second half of Saturday’s performance just before Arachne appears floating above Peter’s head and sings the title song, the best in an otherwise blase score. A stage manager tried to joke that the show had to be paused in order to fix a problem with Arachne’s harness.
Here as later, when one of the descending stage platforms dropped unexpectedly during the show’s curtain call, plummeting a surprised Damiano a foot or two below her fellow cast members, the audience was not amused.