Entertainment » Theatre

Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark

by Jonathan Leaf
Contributor
Wednesday Jun 15, 2011
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A scene from "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark"
A scene from "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark"  (Source:Jacob Cohl)

No, it’s not as bad as you’ve heard.

The famously incomprehensible second act of "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark" is mostly gone. The inscrutable character of Arachne -- so central to the first version of the musical playing at the Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street -- now only appears very briefly in two less-than-pivotal Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) dream sequences.

And there’s a lot to like. If you were a fan of The Who’s "Tommy" or of "Cats," you may love it. This is even more spectacular. Spider-Man’s $75 million dollar production cost and the huge cast are everywhere, and always on display. Over your head you’ll see astonishing flying sequences in which the actors and their numerous stunt doubles speed about, gliding on wires sleekly from the stage up to the balcony and the rafters.

In addition, George Tsypin’s constructivist scenic designs are dazzling. More importantly, during the second act, composer-lyricists Bono and the Edge score with a number of fulfilling anthemic rock-pop ballads.

But perhaps the best thing about the show is Jennifer Damiano as Spider-Man’s sometime girlfriend, Mary-Jane Watson. Given a ridiculously confused, inconsistent, and underwritten role, Damiano manages to charm and delight while showing off a fine, unspoiled voice.

Damiano and Carney bring the show mostly to life in their fine second-act duet, "If The World Should End," and whenever the couple is on stage together the show is compelling if for no other reason than their own very obvious chemistry.

George Tsypin’s constructivist scenic designs are dazzling. During the second act, composer-lyricists Bono and The Edge score with a number of their anthemic rock-pop ballads.

Yet the two are only occasionally paired, and when they’re not, Spider-Man more often appears to be merely a promising out-of-town tryout for an energetic but vacuous piece of fluff. Little is heartfelt, and nothing rises even to the psychological level of a comic book. Even when the show is judged simply as pop entertainment, significant problems remain.

This is reflected not only in the musical’s book but in its score. Most problematic are several of the songs in the first act, which fail to serve their supposed dramatic function. "Bullying by Numbers" happily glorifies Peter Parker’s status as a victim of schoolyard beatings rather than making us sympathize with his plight, and the up-tempo disco ditty "D.I.Y. World" comes across as a bad imitation of a Max Martin tune composed for Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys.

Equally uninspired is the song Peter Parker sings when he discovers his super-powers, "Bouncing Off The Walls." Throughout the show there is a lack of effective transitional music, and far too little wit in the lyrics. Moreover, the whole is played at an ear-splitting level.

Nor is Mary-Jane the show’s only poorly written role. Parker’s boss, J. Jonah Jameson (Michael Mulheren), at the fictional tabloid The Daily Bugle never rises above the level of one-dimensionality. The script is cluttered with idiotic pseudo-science exchanges between the villainous Dr. Norman Osborne (Patrick Page) and his wife Emily (Laura Beth Wells).

Worst of all though are the hideous costumes and former director Julie Taymor’s use of gargantuan puppets to represent Peter Parker’s foes. The latter are risible, only sometimes intentionally. Particularly inept is a campy sequence where Peter jumps into a boxing ring to fight a hulking he-man who is actually only an inflatable doll.

Taymor and U2 don’t appear to have aspired to do anything more than create a vehicle to add to their very large bank balances. Plainly, this was never meant to be "art." Yet, having aimed low, they have failed to succeed even in their most mercenary ambitions.

"Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark" plays an extended run at The Foxwoods Theater, 213 West 42nd Street. For tickets visit Spider-Man on Broadway website.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

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