So, how big a disaster is Julie Taymor’s latest magnum opus? Theatrically, it’s pretty big. Can it be fixed before the official opening (just delayed again until Feb. 7, 2011)? I’m afraid I don’t see how. The script (by Taymor and Glen Berger) is a hopeless muddle, especially in the second act, and the score by U2’s Bono and The Edge is a disaster in and of itself: ponderous, dreary, and tuneless. (One ballad, “If the World Should End,” sung by Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane Watson, sounds like an Evanescence song. That alone made me want to run for the exit. Most of the other numbers sound like underscoring.)
Taymor and Berger’s main innovations to the well-known origin story are to overlay the Greek myth of Arachne, adding the weaver turned spider by the jealous Athena as an actual character. (It’s apparently Arachne who gives Peter Parker his costume after he gains his powers in the traditional way—being bitten by a genetically modified spider. Although, like everything else in the play, this isn’t clear.) There is much speculation about Arachne being Taymor’s alter-ego—at one point Arachne proclaims that “I’m the greatest artist working today”—but if so, Taymor’s making a joke at her own expense. One truly bad idea should be excised post-haste—a “geek chorus”: four comic-book nerds who are either recounting or creating or re-creating the story of Spider-Man. (I’m not actually sure what their purpose is, other than to be annoying and stop the narrative cold whenever they appear.)
Act I basically follows the familiar Spider-Man story pretty closely except for the addition of Arachne, but the scenes just pay homage to the comic book without really connecting with each other in any kind of narrative. We see Mary Jane in her house with her abusive father, and then we next see her in her own apartment without any idea of when or how she moved there. In Act II things really go nutso. After Spider-Man (Reeve Carney, who also stars in Taymor’s film of The Tempest) has defeated the Green Goblin (Patrick Page) and the Sinister Six (a collection of super-villains who all appear at once for some reason), he decides to give up the superhero biz out of love for Mary Jane. Arachne (Natalie Mendoza) is jealous and so she moves out of her astral plane, revives the Green Goblin and the Sinister Six and brings a blackout and mayhem to the real world until Peter agrees to resume the mantle of Spider-Man and go back with Arachne to her astral plane forever, thereby saving Mary Jane’s life. Or something like that. It’s a phantasmagorical mélange that might literally be a bad dream of Peter’s. Or it might all be taking place in his psyche. Hell if I know.
During all this chaos, there is a song about shoes: Arachne’s arachnid henchwomen, the Furies, steal lots of shoes, because they have eight feet, and thus they need lots of shoes, and this somehow allows Arachne to assume the shape of a mortal (because she has lots of shoes), so that she can convince J. Jonah Jameson (Michael Mulhern), publisher of the Daily Bugle, that Spider-Man is really a good guy. Got it?
There are some memorable moments. Recounting Arachne’s story, weavers swing on giant swaths of fabric, and as they alternate, horizontal lengths of material zoom upwards, forming a woof to the warp of the swings, and a giant tapestry is woven before our eyes. The spidery Furies manipulate four extra legs strapped to their midsection during their number, and Daniel Ezralow’s choreography here is both creepy and sexy. George Tysipin’s scenery is impressive, both constructivistic and expressionistic in its take on the urban landscape. (One set allows the audience to look down the sides of the looming skyscrapers to the street below.)
But Taymor’s conception of the look of the villains is too literal. (The costume design is credited to Eiko Ishioka, but Taymor designed the masks.) She’s so wedded to giving the show the look of a comic book, that she fails to add anything of her own. The amazing thing about Taymor’s The Lion King was the complete re-imagination of the look of the Disney movie. Here, the super-villains’ costumes look expensive, but not especially imaginative. And since they’re thrown at you all at once, you can’t really figure out what you’re looking at or who these villains are until much later, if at all. And although most of the settings are clearly contemporary, the Daily Bugle newsroom seems to be set in the 1950s, as an all-female steno pool bangs away on manual typewriters. The attempted explanation for this is that Jameson prefers typewriters to computers, but then how the hell does he get his paper out each day? (And since he mostly ignores the news his reporters bring him, how does he find anything to put in it?)
Much of the show’s publicity thus far has centered around the limb-breaking, concussion-inducing aerial stunts, as report after report of injured cast members has hit the media. The first aerial sequence with Carney is sort of nifty, as he literally bounces off the stylized walls of his bedroom, discovering the extent of his new powers. The big flying feats, where Spider-Man and the Green Goblin swing out over the audience and land on the Foxwood Theatre’s two balconies are fast and dangerous-looking, and they do provide a measure of excitement. But they hardly make up for the show’s basic deficiencies.
As far as the cast goes, almost no one really has a chance to act, because there are no recognizable human beings on the stage or in the script (unlike in Sam Raimi’s terrific Spider-Man 2 movie). Page uses his booming voice effectively as he chortles evilly as the Goblin, but it’s a one-note trick; Mendoza speaks with a pompous and tiresome British accent as Arachne; and Damiano (originator of the role of the daughter in Next to Normal, cast here after Evan Rachel Wood, who worked with Taymor in Across the Universe, dropped out several months ago) is just plain boring. The one cast member who is required to do some emoting, Reeve Carney, just isn’t up to the task. Carney is a singer with an intriguing rock vocal style. (His band Carney features his brother Zane on guitar, and Zane and the rest of the band are part of the back-stage orchestra for this production.) He sounds like a more expressive Rufus Wainwright, and he’s effective in his big number, “The Boy Falls from the Sky,” a soaring anthem that’s the only real song. He’s also got a great look as Peter Parker, but as an actor, he’s frankly terrible. It doesn’t help that the second act dialogue sounds pasted together and disjointed, but even so, he has no idea how to approach a dramatic text, and his speaking voice often sounds strained and hoarse. (Will his voice hold up against the demands of a long Broadway run? Taymor has already brought in a second actor to play Peter Parker/Spider-Man in some performances, Matthew James Thomas.)
When you think about it, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark doesn’t seem much like a theatrical experience. It’s more comparable to a Cirque du Soliel Vegas spectacular. Similar to the Cirque’s O, whose aquatic arena was specially built for the show, the Foxwoods theatre has been remodeled and refitted specifically for Spider-Man, ensuring it can’t tour, and thus requiring a run of at least several years to make a profit. More apropos is the Aladdin show at Disneyland’s California Adventure park, where another famed theater and opera director, Francesca Zambella, fashioned a shortened version of Disney’s animated film big on technological effects (flying carpets swoop over the audience), but short on writing and acting values. Does Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, the most expensive Broadway musical ever made, have any chance of financial success? The preview I saw was sold out, and received a partial standing ovation, but in my experience audiences often do this defiantly in reaction to the badmouthing an expensive spectacle is receiving in the press. The hype and Taymor and U2’s involvement guarantee that the show will run a long time, but will it be long enough? That’s a question I can’t answer. What I can tell you is that artistically, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is a misbegotten mess, a product of a famous rock band that hasn’t the slightest idea of how to write for a musical, and a director who’s paid no attention to the most basic of requirements for the theater: a decent script. But you still want to see it, don’t you?
Spider-Man Turn off the Dark takes up residence at the Foxwoods Theatre in New York for the near future. Currently in previews, the show is now scheduled to open officially on February 7. 2011. For more information, go to www.SpiderManOnBroadway.com.
Postscript: Strictly speaking it isn’t kosher for a critic to review a production still in previews. I would never do this for a San Francisco production, but Spider-Man, a whale of a show in comparison to Scene 2’s microscopic bit of plankton, will easily withstand any blows I strike. And Ms. Taymor is welcome to fly me out to New York once Spider-Man opens, and I will gladly re-review it.