Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to achieve.
While its final achievement is debatable, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark cannot be accused of not practising enough. Most preview periods for Broadway musicals last a few weeks; not so for Spider-Man. Originally scheduled to open in December, the show wound up pushing its official opening date to June 14, after a record-decimating 183 previews, marred by technical, artistic and financial troubles that were intensely scrutinized in the American media and beyond.
It would be satisfying to report that the beleaguered Spider-Man had successfully overcome its legion of foes: the Green Goblins of amateur carpers on blogs and online discussion boards, the Vultures of the press, the Lizards of late-night TV. But practice has not made perfect. While the musical has moments of beautiful imagery and genuinely exciting aerial sequences, as well as the basic storytelling competence it lacked for most of its history, only rarely does it soar.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” as Spidey’s Uncle Ben reminded him in the Marvel Comics source, in which student Peter Parker acquires extraordinary gifts from the bite of a radioactive spider. And Spider-Man seemed nothing if not superpowered when it first arrived on the Great White Way. The musical score was by U2’s Bono and the Edge; the show’s budget was far higher than any other in Broadway history; and at the helm of the project – acting as director, co-writer and mask designer – was Julie Taymor, the celebrated auteur of Broadway’s The Lion King.
So who was responsible for the musical’s troubled gestation? Its original first act followed a plot familiar to Spider-Man fans, in which our hero – played by the lithe, attractive Reeve Carney – did battle with a mad scientist who had taken on the alter ego of the Green Goblin (portrayed ripely by veteran baddie Patrick Page). But the second act centred on a new antagonist: the hubristic Arachne (T.V. Carpio) of Greek myth, who was transformed into a spider by the gods and turned out to be behind Peter’s own metamorphosis.
It was wildly original, but shockingly incoherent. Critics compared Taymor to Arachne; she was let go in March, and show doctors – writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and director Philip Wm. McKinley – were brought in for radical reconstructive surgery.
The revised Spider-Man is undeniably clearer and better structured. The new plot closely resembles that of the first Spider-Man film: Arachne’s story has been almost eliminated, and the roles of the Green Goblin and Peter’s love interest, Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano), have been expanded. And the production continues to feature gorgeous sets by George Tsypin – full of playful twists on urban perspective – as well as flying scenes that unfold with a speed and dynamism hitherto unimaginable in a Broadway theatre.
Schadenfreudians who attend Spider-Man hoping for a disaster will therefore be disappointed. But so, alas, will those hoping for more than lavish set pieces and a familiar story, loudly sung. The actors stay suspended, but disbelief is not always so lucky. The show now seems aimed predominantly at a teenage imagination, and flaws in the material – the ahistorical weirdness of the design, which borrows from 80 years of comic-book styles, or the dramatically inert and lyrically banal score – detract from the smoothness of the spectacle.
The great irony of Spider-Man 2.0 is this: With many of Taymor’s weakest contributions excised, the originality of her remaining work gives Spider-Man whatever specialness it offers, as in an early scene in which ancient Greek women on swings weave giant swaths of orange fabric. Tired though the show may seem from its long dash to the starting gate, its veins still throb from Arachne’s bite.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
- Music and lyrics by Bono and the Edge
- Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
- Original direction by Julie Taymor; creative consultant Philip Wm. McKinley
- Starring Reeve Carney, Jennifer Damiano, Patrick Page
- At the Foxwoods Theatre in New York City
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has an open-ended run in New York City.
Special to The Globe and Mail