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Theater review: 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' at Foxwoods Theatre

February 7, 2011 |  3:54 pm

Spider man 2 Well, it turns out there is a valid reason the producers of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” have been keeping critics at bay. Julie Taymor's $65-million, accident-prone production, featuring an erratic score by U2’s Bono and The Edge, is a teetering colossus that can’t find its bearings as a circus spectacle or as a rock musical. 

The endlessly postponed official opening was last moved from Feb. 7 to March 15, but the battle over health care reform has a better shot at being resolved before the manifold problems of this frenetic Broadway jumble get fixed.

In the meantime, “Spider-Man” has been making lucrative lemonade out of all the lemons the media has thrown an embarrassing spotlight on. (The show, previewing since late November at the Foxwoods Theatre, has already beaten “Wicked” in the weekly box office tallies.) Not even a nuclear bomb detonation, as the satiric newspaper the Onion joked, can stop this juggernaut, which has survived financial crises, a spate of cast member injuries and enough bad press to sink a presidential candidate. 

Spider man 1A

But the time has come to assess the work, not the hullabaloo surrounding it. So much emphasis has been placed on the technological hurdles, the notion that “Spider-Man” is trying things that have never been attempted before in a Broadway house. What sinks the show, however, has nothing to do with glitches in the special effects. To revise a handy little political catch phrase, “It’s the storytelling, stupid.” And on that front, the failure rests squarely on Taymor’s run-amok direction.
This is, after all, her vision, and it’s a vision that has been indulged with too many resources, artistic and financial. The production, lacking the clarity that's born out of tough choices, adds when it should subtract, accelerates when it should slow down. Taymor’s  inventive staging of “The Lion King” was a victory for the craft and commerce of theater alike. But the investors of “Spider-Man” have inadvertently bankrolled an artistic form of megalomania.

The book, by Taymor and Glen Berger, is an absolute farrago, setting up layers and subplots before the main narrative line has been established. A female spider figure from Classical mythology named Arachne (T.V. Carpio) has been introduced, mucking up the traditional Marvel tale. There’s even a chorus, a group of comic-book-addicted kids, who at first appear to be joshing fans of the “Spider-Man” saga but later seem to be actually inventing the tedious version unfolding before us. Apparently, they’re the creative team’s surrogates. Not that it matters much in the end. The conceit is dispensed with as the second act transforms into a video game, interrupted by high-flying shenanigans that had many in the audience nervously bowing their heads as human cartoons swooshed above them.

The biggest shame in all of this is that the leads — Reeve Carney, who plays Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and Jennifer Damiano, who plays Peter’s love interest, Mary Jane — are utterly captivating. Their appealing sensitivity, however, is no match for the machine they’re trapped in. Forget about the snarling threats of the Green Goblin (Patrick Page decked in a verdant, plasticky getup that would seem obvious even for a Halloween parade) — the real villainy is Taymor’s overreaching desire to top herself.

The music is hit or miss, with three screechers for every rousing cri de coeur rock ballad. But the show is most alive when the sound that Bono and The Edge made famous connects to the emotional predicament of Peter Parker, who’s torn between the demands of crime-fighting and the dictates of his own homebody heart. The best numbers, “No More,” “Bouncing Off the Walls” (thrillingly staged as the title suggests) and “If the World Should End,” emerge from the protagonist’s or Mary Jane's inner state of being. Too much else, unfortunately, is a cacophonous brew.

The visual world of the production is more confusing than mesmerizing. Taymor, working with a fleet of designers, seems unable to settle on a style, bounding between comic-book cut-outs and expensive sci-fi gadgetry, between ingenious thrift and galumphing glitz. It would be pointless to sort out the hodgepodge of historical eras, but, among other jarring incongruities, there's a reference to the Internet at a newsroom so comically old school it would seem to predate Clark Kent.   

Incoherence isn’t much fun to sit through. The two friends who attended Friday night's performance with me, a fashion executive and a filmmaker, both regular New York theatergoers, were muttering to each other before the first act was done. My fashion industry friend, who bought the tickets, spent the second act savoring a martini at the bar at Sardi’s. The filmmaker stuck it out with me, hoping against hope that Taymor’s vision would somehow pull itself together. The poor guy left Foxwoods feeling as though he had been lured inside someone's psychotic hallucination.

The aerial antics were impressive to an acrophobic like me. I feared for the actors’ safety, though, stupidly or not, I managed to convince myself that every safety measure was being employed. But there’s a kiddie show aspect to these soaring stunts that seems at odds with a spectacle that many will find too complicated, brooding and weirdly suggestive for young children. 

Who exactly is “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” for anyway? The only answer I can come up with is an audience of Julie Taymor types who care only about panoramic sensibility— a bit of slow-mo choreography here, a smattering of diabolical mask work there.  Much as I enjoyed the clever shifts in perspective during the skyscraper scenes, it was hard for me to picture adults or young people yearning for a second visit, never mind critics who may feel obliged to check back in with the production when (or should I say if?) it officially opens. Nothing cures the curiosity about "Spider-Man" quite like seeing it.  

Perhaps this is why the show’s long-term prospects seem to me nearly as grim as the fate of Bette Davis' character in another work with 'dark' in the title — “Dark Victory.”  Not since that 1939 weeper have the words "prognosis negative" seemed so apt.


Critic's Notebook: 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' needs some light shed on it by critics, and soon

--Charles McNulty




Photos: Top, Spider-Man saves the day! A scene from "Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark"; bottom,   
 the Green Goblin (Patrick Page) duels with Spider-Man (Reeve Carney) high atop the Chrysler Building. Credit: Jacob Cohl/8 Legged Productions



Comments () | Archives (22)

I loved Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and definitely plan on returning after March 15 when the show officially opens. Sure, there are still issues to work out, but what I saw on the Foxwood stage was more exciting and daring that most Broadway musicals, and I too am a serious theater goer.

Hubris is the issue here. Julie Taymor, like her character Arachne, has angered the Gods. Me, I think striving for greatness take a lot of courage. I highly recommend seeing Spider-Man and arriving at the theater with an open mind.

This review does not even begin to describe how awful the show is. Save your money.

Broadway needs a Spider-Man musical, well... like a fish needs a bicycle.

Fantastic article Mr. McNulty... very well done, sir.

I'd much rather go see a show like "Lombardi", when I go to NYC from March 15-18, 2011. It has a great story, fantastic acting and also the marvelous Judith Light. No one has to worry about any of the cast members flying over the audience and possibly causing injury. There should be a new word for egomania = julietaymoritis.

Every review has been scathing.

What a waste of time, money and talent. Julie Taymore should quit trying to write.

And direct.

It is disgraceful that critics like McNulty have decided to plunge themselves into the story, deciding ahead of time that what they call Tamor's "hubris". You are not the story. New York City can always use a hit and a failure of this magnitude certainly won't help except to sweell the heads of this sneaky critics. Especially McNulty who should stay home an cover more LA theatre which is what he is hired to do. This show has as much hubris but more art that these critics who feel they really must review it a month early.

I don't think shows should be reviewed before they officially open.

When did Julie Taymor manage to pull the wool over everyone's eyes? "The Lion King," despite making endless millions, is an overrated puppet show. And everything else she's done has been an artistic or technical fiasco. Apparently people have forgotten the glitches that hobbled "Grendel" (the opera) or the travesty that her recent films have been. (More people have seen my home movies than "The Tempest").

$65 million could have bankrolled five "Wicked"-scale musicals -- or 20-25 Broadway plays -- instead. So much for artistic responsibility.

Clearly, there are a couple of Taymor fans here who will think her stagings of a telephone book reading are theatre-worthy experiences. As for the people who think that the production should not be reviewed until it opens - this production has been charging hundred dollar tickets for an unfinished production, and have pushed back the official "opening" multiple times, all the while raking in the cash from people who for the most part were fleeced.

If there's any intention for this show to really reap any money after it's long since packed away its B'way web, it's in regional and summer stock. It seems completely unrealistic that any theatre could possibly afford to mount this show; "Peter Pan" flying is one thing, but it sounds like the mechanics of this effort are a challenge even for the best money can buy in New York!

Very amusing, 'Scott', whose post appears first at the top of the list. You're either Julie Taymor or one of the producers. Who knew theater could be so insulting, let alone disgustingly inept by squandering $65 million on one production. Theater as spectacle. Got it -- that's all you've been doing for years, Taymor. So much for 'art'.

"Me, I think striving for greatness take a lot of courage."

Yes, spending millions of other people's money does take a lot of courage.

May I make an offering from Steven Suskin's review in Variety?

"For the record, despite a recent run-in with the New York City Dept. of Consumer Affairs, there was no visible signage at the Foxwoods (formerly Ford/Hilton) indicating that this was a preview performance and that refunds/exchanges were available."

There are many, many reviews now out by notable papers and critics. Peruse those and you will find an almost unanimous decision to publish their opinions. And disappointments.

Well, this could be another case of The Addams Family Syndrome. Bad reviews; great business.

Great review Mr. McNulty. Probably more fair and judicious than was warranted. I have not seen the production but I get the distinct sense that there was more coherence in your review than the remaining weeks of 'previews' will ever bring to the show.

Do the Producers really feel that all the critics will return in a month to find a show so re-vamped that they're forced to swallow their words? The real key will be to see if despite all the negative reviews the show is able to recoup it's investment. If so, and with a modicum of face saving profit thrown on top for their investors, we will most certainly be subjected to further bombast and incoherence for as long as Marvel Comics can be mined for material.

I think it is absolutely fair to review this now! Were the critics supposed to wait until March 15, so that the producers, already making tons of money and expecting crowds to forgive the problems because "it isn't quite finished yet", could push the date back again and say, "Actually, we're opened August 4," and this show could have the longest "preview" in history?

Even if chose to advertise that they are adjusting the show as it runs, I think reviewers have a responsibility to their audiences to review a show while it's hot - to side with us as consumers who need to know what we're getting. Who wants to review a show in a month's (or more) time that everyone has already seen or heard about?

I saw the show two weeks ago and thought, what a shame that so much obvious talent and creativity got knit together so poorly. The actors, particularly Reeve Carney, the sets, the music are just wonderful, but what seemed to me to be so many promising pieces couldn't make a coherent whole...after all the time they've put into it how can Julie Taymor not see that? Great energy in first act but too long and too much crammed in. Second act: kill the shoe number, the fire escape number and at least one of the slow songs!!! There's loads of fun in the show and all that effort will be for nothing when the tickets stop selling. What a huge shame and waste.

It can't be worse than Break of Noon at the Geffen!

No surprises here...Michael Cimino's Heavens Gate all over again. You could see the disaster in the making,...the delays because of not having a finished product to produce and crafting a work in progress on the fly in public; the no comments from Taymor , and Berger and Cohlr picking off the flack; the light at the end of the tunnel scenario.
It's doing great box office but the artistic overindulgence mutes any triumph. The backers are in over their heads and have no choice but to press on until the loses become bearable.
The show will never overcome the preview hoopla no matter how it turns out. Too much Taymor ego...like Cimino.

"So if there are no more injuries, and the production irons out the technical glitches that do occur and are tolerable during previews but will be unacceptable once the show opens, Spiderman should pull through for its investors..."

is that from what I've heard about the plot and music, the potential for injuries was the only reason people were paying to see the show in the first place!

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