logan j. fowler checks out the newest incarnation of Spider-Man in musical format and decides whether the webhead swings high or crawls …
As I sat down in my seat in the Foxwoods Theater in the heart of Times Square, I was accompanied by my friend Matt who said something quite profound:
“You know, even sitting here, in the seat, in the theater, staring at the giant Spider-Man sign, I still can’t believe they made a Spider-Man musical.”
And for that matter, neither could I. Spider-Man has been everywhere-toys, movies, collectibles, lunchboxes, baseball caps, t-shirts, and of course, comics, where he was originally conceived by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the early 1960’s. But a musical? Really?
Yet here we are. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark has been in production hell for quite a while. A rising budget, injured actors, and stars who walked off the project (Alan Cumming was playing the role of Green Goblin for a bit before he departed) all played a part in the controversy surrounding the wallcrawler’s broadway debut. Critics who saw it said the show was bloated and the “all spectacle, no substance” sticker was applied to the production. Even U2, who has won Grammy after Grammy, penned the music, but even their hard work lent nothing much to the proceedings.
It seemed a lot of fingers pointed to director Julie Taymor (The Lion King) as being the major source of the problem (reports show that Taymor walked off the project not too long ago). The escalating costs were running the musical into the ground before it could even metaphorically sling a web to get off said ground. At last major estimation, the show was costing a whopping $65 million. In order to get it running after several delays, a major revamp of the show was undertaken, minimizing character’s roles and adding new songs. Set to initially open in November, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark opened on June 14, 2011.
I was there two days later, a thought that baffled even me and my friends as well. Due to the fact that
Spider-Man is my favorite superhero, the general consensus was that I would flock to this. But when I downplayed my interest, and said “no way,” I was given looks that would make you think I was a four-headed alien. “But … Logan … it’s SPIDER-MAN. Who are you?!”
From the negative words surrounding it, to the viewing of the larger than life costumed criminals, to the mentions of injuries haunting the production, I was turned off (no pun intended) by Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. However, word of mouth can be a powerful thing, so when I heard it was actually quite a fun ride, my interest grew a little bit. And thankfully, due to my amazing colleagues at Pop-Break.com, who I must thank along with co-founder Bill Bodkin, I was able to see this plagued production for myself opening week.
Sitting 14 rows away from the stage, being dead center, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark began at 7:30 p.m. As the red curtain featuring Spider-Man slinging a web near the Brooklyn bridge, along with a falling Mary Jane and Green Goblin rose up, I was introduced to Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) in his pre-altered state, discussing the myth of Arachne (T.V. Carpio), a mortal weaver who entered into a weaving contest with Athena, goddess of wisdom and craft. As the events play out, we learn that Arachne’s weaving was not up to snuff, but Arachne protested that Athena’s weave wasn’t great either. Infuriated, Athena transformed Arachne into the world’s first spider, and as the segment concludes, we focus back on Peter who surrounded by classmates.
Following this brief setup, we learn (for those not familiar with the story) Peter is a nerdy outcast,picked on by bullies, not lucky with the ladies, and one who confides too strongly in his guardians, Uncle Ben (Ken Marks) and Aunt May (Isabel Keating). His one beacon of hope in all his high school drama (pun not intended) is Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano), a beautiful red head who lives right next door to Peter. Her home life is vastly different from Peter’s being hers is shared with an alcoholic father (Jeb Brown). The two long for something different from the norm, and Peter indirectly gets his wish with a visit to Dr. Norman Osborn’s (Patrick Page) lab where the doc has a cage full of genetically engineered super spiders. While Peter isn’t looking, a spider slinks down from the sky and bites him, rendering him into a superhuman with all the proportionate strength of a spider. With his new-found powers, he enters into a wrestling match to win money to buy a car to impress MJ, only to return home to a murdered Uncle Ben (done by the hands of a burglar), who Peter realizes he could have saved. Following his Uncle’s death, he adapts the motto “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility,” and Arachne comes through to Peter in a vision discussing the colors his costume should be. Forty-five minutes into the show, Spider-Man finally swings on stage, climbing up walls, slinging webs, and pulling off incredible acrobatics. But it seems danger is not far away; with Spider-Man making the papers due to Peter’s new-found job as Spider-Man’s photographer at the Daily Bugle, Norman Osborn takes notice, and believes his lifelong work has made it out into human form without his permission. Forced by the army to speed up his process of creating superhuman genetics, Osborn tests a serum on himself with the help of his wife who ends up dying during the experiment. Norman leaves the testing area severely altered, and Spider-Man’s first major foe, the Green Goblin, is born.
Green Goblin continues testing post his own alteration, using laboratory scientists who he fired due to funding. Believing that they were traitors, he mutates them to become the Sinister Six, a team of super villains that include Swarm (Gerald Avery), who can become a swarm of bees at will, Electro (Emmanuel Brown), who can shoot electricity from his body, Swiss Miss (Sean Samuels-yes, a man), a walking Swiss Army knife, Lizard (Brandon Rubendall), a baddie who is pretty self explanatory, Kraven the Hunter (Christopher W. Tierney), a game hunter, and Carnage (Collin Baja), a mutated creature who shoots blood. With all these new threats, Peter soon begins to realize that his aunt and his current girlfriend, Mary Jane may be in danger, and while he passes off the suit he dons every night to save crime to J. Jonah Jameson (editor of the Daily Bugle, played by Michael Mulheren), telling the boss “Spider-Man quit,” he soon realizes through Arachne’s words that giving up that life may not be so easy. And so, Peter has to make a choice: remain happy while immense danger exists, or do his part to clean it up.
What I have just laid out for you is the Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark STORY. However, being it is a musical, there are some tunes that accompany the retelling of the webhead’s origin. With lyrics written by Bono and The Edge, you could either love the music or hate it, as some of it is really cheesy, but other songs really stick out, leaving you to wonder, “Does this really belong in a Spider-Man musical?” Some numbers I truly did enjoy; “Bouncing Off The Walls,” which is where Peter questions the origin of his transformation, “Rise Above,” where Peter begins to form the idea of becoming a superhero in his head, and “If The World Should End,” a nice ballad between Peter and Mary Jane, and a catalyst for Peter’s eventual realization that being a superhero is no easy task. However, my favorite song from the musical has to be “Boy Falls From the Sky,” pretty much the single from the show, but also the only real lyrical standout, as Bono and Edge seemed to have nailed Peter’s frustration in trying to be a hero and a boyfriend at the same time. The song clearly identifies his giving up of the better life, and is strongly poetic. I’m not a huge U2 fan (their work in the early ’80s through early ’90s would be the epitome of their greatness, in my opinion), but “Boy Falls From the Sky” is quickly becoming one of my favorite songs.
It’s a shame to say that the music from the rest of the show isn’t up to snuff. “Bullying By Numbers” is absolutely dreadful, as it is played over a beat up ballet of sorts (Peter is getting pounded in slow motion during this number). “No More” is just a cliche “can’t put up with this anymore” kind of song, but is used to identify the problems for both Peter and Mary Jane. In any case, it was a throwaway tune. “A Freak Like Me Needs Company,” one of the Green Goblin’s few songs in character is fun, but is very “dance pop” and is instantly forgettable (although for a quick jab at the show’s rising cost). However, GG’s song “I’ll Take Manhattan” is a riff on the classic tune (sung by Blossom Dearie, written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart), and is also pretty funny, so he earns some points back. “Pull The Trigger,” the song that pushes Norman to experiment on himself, is severely loud and gratuitous. I think that dialogue would’ve sufficed for Osborn being pushed over the edge, but no, we get soldiers stomping and scientists twisting musical words leading to the doctor’s downfall.
All the other tunes not mentioned fall somewhere in the middle. However, one could say that trying to write lyrics to a show about a superhero is not exactly easy. True, and while like I mentioned some of the songs are way better than others, the imbalance just makes it feel like not a lot of effort was placed on the shows vocal pieces.
With the music out of the way, let’s get to the actors. The perfect place to start would be Reeve Carney, who takes on the duel identity of Peter and Spider-Man. Carney has a great singing voice, as he is in his own band, and initially I wasn’t super stoked to have him play my favorite superhero. However, as time passed and the show went on, I eventually became comfortable with the actor as Peter. While Spider- Man is a different story (there were stuntmen playing him, and Carney only really portrays him in the final scenes), he is likeable enough to be Peter, both geek mode and not.
The same I cannot say about Damiano, who played MJ. She is a very pretty girl, and her singing voice is fine, but she just didn’t portray enough emotion in her suspicions and worry to come across as she really cared. While she certainly trumps Kirsten Dunst (who I absolutely loathed as MJ in the big screen version of Spider-Man), no actress will ever come close (unless there is a miracle) to the MJ I grew to knew and fell in love with in the comics.
Rounding out the major characters is Patrick Page as Norman Osborn/the Green Goblin. In the beginning, we see Norman as a very pleasant character who is pushed over the edge by financial gain and scientific power. His transformation into the Goblin brings no inner sorrow to this viewer, though; Emily’s death is not affective at all, and neither are Osborn’s cries over her dead body. However, the actor in Page really hams it up in the second act, bringing to mind Caesar Romero’s Joker from the 1960’s Batman TV show. The Green Goblin drops a lot of bad jokes, revels in his villainy way too much, and is a charismatic bad guy you love to hate. Page really steals the show, and while the overwhelming threat to Spider-Man or Mary Jane is never really felt by the baddie (Green Goblin seems too charming to be considered a serious megalomaniac), Page injects some comedic effect into the show despite his ridiculous costume (which I’ll get to later).
Those being the big roles, I can’t really say I had any major problems with the smaller ones. One that bugged me the most, however is that in bully Flash Thomson (played by Matt Caplan), a casting that I just couldn’t shake; Flash is supposed to be a high school jock who towers over Peter. Instead, he’s actually SHORTER than Carney and he honestly looks like a punk band reject. Not to mention the fact that he wears skinny jeans and looks like he shops at hot topic.
Which now brings me to the costumes; when you think of Spider-Man, you really want a timeless feel. Nothing that sticks out, per se, as you want to retain a sense of “This could happen ten years ago, or this could happen tomorrow.” But Turn Off The Dark is all over the place; Peter retains modern-day wear, as does Mary Jane. Uncle Ben and Aunt May dress like senior citizens would, so no problem there. Norman dresses like a scientist, okay … wait, so besides Peter’s bullies dressing up like hot topic clones, there is an actual scene where the citizens of New York dress up in ’40s-style clothing. J. Jonah Jameson wears a zoot suit, as do the gangsters (and I’m not meaning slang, I mean straight up tommy gun carrying gangsters). I mean honestly, I don’t know what the costume designers were thinking. The gangsters should’ve been scrapped, I feel, which brings me to another point …
On some characters they don’t have regular heads, as they are more caricature based. Their bodies are big, heads are big, and instead of taking on proportional human formations, they are more like cartoon characters. They seem straight out of Taymor’s book (really reminded me of Lion King in this department), and the gangsters, Kraven, Lizard’s human form, Swarm, Swiss Miss and Carnage all share this quality. In order to enjoy the show fully, you just have to accept the slight alternation in the musical’s villain arsenal.
The one problem I ever had since the beginning with this show is the look of the Green Goblin. If you spray painted him brownish orange, he would look like a reject out of Broadway’s Lion King mixed with The Grinch. A glowing neon green was the original image I saw, but it does look slightly better on stage. While the costume still looks obscene (Page looks like a bearded dragon for all of act two) the actor really works past it, so thankfully my almost vomiting at the images I saw pre show worked itself out to
The Spider-Man costume looks fine. A slight alteration of the comic book’s costume (mainly in the spider symbol), I had no problem with that. Moving on …
So now the big question is: What did I think? Well I thought a lot. If I had to tell you what Spider-Man’s strongest point is, it is undoubtedly the aerial stuff. Spider-Man swings, Green Goblin flies, and these are people who have done this for months past all the news of people falling. It is a very dangerous show, both financially and physically. However, as I sat in my seat that night watching a dude dressed in a Spidey costume swing overhead, I must have been enjoying myself, because the internal fanboy in me totally cracked a smile (as well as the external one).
But, how was the rest? While I did note a lot of areas with complaints, you have to understand something: Even though this production is a 65 million dollar musical, you SHOULD NOT EXPECT IT TO BE A MASTERPIECE. It is based around a superhero. It has sound effects written in words. It has over-the-top villains. It has a dude singing about how he wants to be with his girlfriend but can’t because he has to save the world. Literally.
Now I will admit, the first act is slow, and the show takes a few liberties with the source material, which I had problems with. Also, this is the origin story of Spider-Man, so at this point you may be seeing something you have seen already.
But, if you allow yourself to just enjoy your night at the theater, than Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark could be a lot of fun. I’m not a completely subjective person, but at intermission when I told my buddy Matt of all my problems with act one, he said, “Wow, Logan and I’m more cynical than you are. You’re usually the one with the more open mind when it comes to things.”
Knowing that, I geared myself up for act two, and dropped all my inner thought of why I wasn’t able to enjoy the show. With that in mind, I saw Spider-Man beat up baddies, saw the Green Goblin play piano on top of the Chrysler building, and saw two of them go head to head in a final battle with one amazing setpiece behind them (which, just to note-the set pieces are the second best part of this show). As the two duked it out right above my head, I had not five minutes before placed a piece of Spider-Man’s web (he “twhipped” near the aisle I was sitting by, allowing me to get a strand) right inside my bag. Yes, a 28-year-old male placed a piece of white tissue paper material inside his over the shoulder bag, as a child would place a candy cane from Santa Claus in his pocket.
Walking out of the theater, I saw a child much younger than me with a whole mess of webs, a huge grin on his face. And that’s when I realized it; the real power behind Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is not the music, or the actors, the costumes, or even the standing ovation it received by the end of the show. These critics who harp on it don’t get the message — Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark asks you to unlock the kid inside, watching larger than life heroes and villains swinging overhead. If you can’t enjoy it on that level, allowing yourself to lower your expectations regardless of a $65 million price tag, then you will be turned off by Turn Off The Dark.