Disclaimer: The following review observations are based on a “preview” showing of the musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. I’m sure someone would get huffy if I didn’t acknowledge that they are still working on some of the show’s technical aspects. When it opens in February there may be some changes made to the production.
In the infamous 1979 film Caligula, there is a scene in which Caligula, along with a bunch of his subjects, sit in a coliseum watching executions. The method of the prisoner’s execution is not a traditional gladiatorial match or death by hanging or beheading. No, keeping with Caligula’s over the top flair, the men are buried in the arena floor up to their necks and have their heads chopped off via an enormous, ornately decorated, brightly-colored, lawnmower as it is pushed across the field towards the emperor who watches from the best seat in the house. The “lawnmower” is crewed by a large team of technicians and slaves, both seen and unseen. It is a state-of-the-art, overly-complex death machine (picture below, click for a better look, isn’t that a spiffy screen grab?).
What does Caligula‘s head-slicing lawnmower have to do with Julie Taymor’s mega-budgeted new musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark? Well, you’ve no doubt heard about the several injuries that have plagued the stunt-heavy production. The most recent of which occurred a few days ago and landed stuntman and dancer Christopher Tierney in critical condition (broken ribs and internal bleeding, the fall he took in front of a sold-out crowd nearly killed him). Mr. Tierney’s fall also resulted in the cancellation of several shows while the production was pressured to adopt and institute new safety measures.
I turned up to the theater last Wednesday to find a throng of camera crews and sullen looking theater goers and knew the cause almost immediately. The production’s scheduled “post-accident comeback show” had been canceled mere hours before curtain. The producers offered guests a full refund and shuttled star Reeve Carney (freezing his balls off, no doubt) out the door to sign autographs in an attempt to soothe the disappointed masses.
I doubt the refund made any of the hundreds of children left out in the cold with no Spider-Man feel much better, but hey: it’s better than rushing the show on unprepared and having another injury.
I had washed my hands of the experience, said my “aww shucks” and figured I wouldn’t be attending the sold-out show any time soon. But, as fate would have it, today’s blizzard (12/26) afforded me the opportunity of seats opening up. Lucky me.
The tone of the show and its execution (the sets, costuming, etc.) fluctuate wildly, as if nobody, from Taymor down to the company’s lighting department really had any idea what the hell this thing was supposed to be. One moment its design and dialogue is cheesy comic book pastiche (clothing that looks like it’s been “drawn” on the actors, pop-up book sets, and copious “Biff” “Slam” “Crack” signs ala the Adam West Batman television show) and the next it’s Taymor’s Lion King-puppet schtick. It’s all tied together with the expensive looking but antiseptically anemic city skyline and enormous digital screens. It all never meshes and, despite the noticeable differences in style, is uniformly tacky.
Aside from promised plot of web-slinging “biff ” “pow” action and Peter Parker/Mary Jane romance, Taymor also tries to legitimize and intellectualize (HAH!) the story by introducing a quartet of comic book loving young folk to be Spidey’s fanclub and Greek chorus. She also augments the web-head’s origin story to include Arachne, the figure from Greek mythology who is turned into the first spider. Of all the show’s missteps (which there are many) these additions are perhaps the most laughably stupid and cringe-inducing-ly self-indulgent. I’m no continuity obsessed comic-geek, change whatever you want Julie. But if you’re changes involve a scene in which your corseted, sequined chorus line of arachnoid showgirls (each having eight stocking-ed legs) help their mistress try on four different sets of stolen knee-high boots (I swear to God this happens, I couldn’t make this up). If this happens, Julie: then you’ve made a wrong turn somewhere.
The supposed point to this mash-up of Ovid and Stan Lee is that old chestnut that pseudo-intellectuals use when trying to simultaneously defend and dismiss the superhero genre. The idea that “Superhero stories are today’s myths!” If that is true and Taymor et al are trying to invite that kind of comparison then I must say that I’m at a lose to decode what kind of myth Turn Off the Dark is: it’s not really a creation myth and for the amount of whining and loafing our hero does it’s not much of a hero myth. Oh, I know. It must be a veiled metaphor for a train wreck. Bravo.
U2 catches a lot of flack from certain corners, but personally I don’t mind them. Joshua Tree is a great album, even if I don’t care for some of their newer stuff. That said: Bono and The Edge’s tone-deaf score makes minstrels like Nickelback look like a group of Steven Sondheims. Crummy, repetitive Edge-esque guitar riffs are coupled with lyrics that sound like the songwriting duo was just flipping through a rhyming dictionary at random, eager to have the whole ordeal over with and just get their names up next to Ms. Taymor on the Marquee.
As for the talent on stage: it’s a mixed bag. The matinee show featured Matthew James Thomas as the title character and Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane. Both stars admirably rise above the music itself, even if their effort is in vain. Thomas is a competent vocalist and has to both sing and deal with cumbersome flying rigs through much of the production. Damiano, who is not the stand-in but the lead, fairs worse. At this performance her voice was spotty and line delivery was lukewarm, but hey, she’s been through a lot. All these actors have, they aren’t just sweating losing their jobs (a very real possibility if the show fails to take off) but losing life and limb.
This, the show’s 21st performance in front of a paying audience, was not as plagued with problems as some of the earlier previews. Although, there was an alarm tripped on one of the actor’s rigs during the Act 1 finale. The new safety procedures insisted that the action be stopped, Spider-Man and the Green Goblin dangling above the crowd with the house lights on for about 5 minutes. The actors seemed to take it in good humor, mugging for the crowd and getting awkward laughter in return. Their body language as they were hoisted back on stage by technicians seemed to say: “business as usual for your friendly neighborhood stuntmen.”
I’m being hard on this show, and regular readers know that I usually keep everything nice and cheery, but here we have something I feel is truly worthy of contempt and I thank you for indulging me.
For those looking to paint me as a Grinch: tearing apart a show whose target audience is kids. Let me leave you with a mental image that, for me, perfectly sums up the whole experience. At the intermission break, dying to stretch my legs I stood up and in doing so glanced at the row behind me. There, curled up on his seat in the fetal position, was a boy of about ten years of age. The young boy was sleeping soundly, gripping the show’s playbill against his Spider-Man t-shirt. It was 2:30 in the afternoon (the Sunday matinee began at 1 p.m.) and Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and Julie Taymor had put this kid to sleep with a show “extreme” enough to hobble its cast members.
*One last note: The show is budgeted at $65 million but Spider-Man’s webs are achieved with white party streamers and one of Spidey’s stunt doubles is a foot-long action figure on a string.
** This is too much fun, last note, I promise: At the beginning of Act II there is a super villain fashion show, complete with catwalk. Carnage’s costume is sequined, The Lizard is an inflatable puppet and the mostly-paper mache Kraven might be the most frightening thing I have ever seen.
For those of you worried that I misread the tone of this musical and read above thinking it’s clearly pure farce: the majority of Act II is comprised of boring, sappy Peter/MJ, Peter/Arachne love ballads.