On its 10th preview performance, I saw Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway. And let me tell you, it’s a goddam shitshow. There’s talk of even more rewrites, but after what I witnessed last night, it’s basically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic at this point. I need to share this with the TR readers, because the odds are this thing is going to close way before you take the trip to New York and get tickets. The fact that half the row in front of me didn’t come back for the second act makes me think that your window for seeing this is shrinking.
And to be fair, I’ve been able to pick out five things that were actually good about Turn Off the Dark (for the record, the title itself means absolutely nothing!). There were some enjoyable parts, and I’m not talking about the special needs kid in the orchestra section who would occasionally scream gibberish at the stage. Get ready, poor readers.
5 GOOD THINGS ABOUT THE SPIDEY MUSICAL:
5) The Green Goblin
Yes, you saw all the pre-production photos and said, “He looks silly,” but during the show you don’t mind at all. He looks sufficiently badass and his delivery is a mix of Oogie-Boogie from A Nightmare Before Christmas and Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog. At times though, you expected him to warn you to hide your wife, hide your kids, and hide your husbands. The voice was weird. But it was sufficiently over-the-top and evil, and you just go along with it.
4) The Special Effects
Well, a few of them, at least. Spidey falling off the Chrysler Building is done with a little doll and the entire audience broke up laughing. Same with the way-too-big spider that bites him. And the audience laughed at every time they tried to do something in slow motion. C’mon guys, I’ve seen better fights at the Batman Stunt Spectacular at Six Flags. Also, the web effects came down to either swinging on one of the two cables holding Spidey up, putting your arms up to look like you’re holding something but aren’t, or throwing something that looked like a really white wig at people. But at other times, things looked neat. The stage expanded with hydraulics that looked pretty cool, and it was great to see showers of sparks leap from Electro’s hands. The costumes has numerous moving parts, which made them a little less laughable (still, most were laughable).
3) J. Jonah Jameson
Michael Mulharen does the best job of anyone in the cast, and this might have to do with the fact that he doesn’t sing. A bad Jameson can ruin a Spider-Man production (see the live-action TV series for proof of that), but Mulharen holds the thing up. The Daily Bugle set is full of surreal, Lovecraftian angles, a fleet of perky secretaries, and reporters who constantly run in with scoops. The scenes aren’t exactly funny, but they’re full of personality, something which everyone in the cast lacks. Mulharen’s JJJ takes a cue from the movie version, and it’s just enjoyable to see on the stage.
2) The Sets
This will, hands down, win every award for set design ever invented, and even some that will have to be created specifically for it. While a lot of the sets are stark stages with projections, even the projections of webs and fires and action keep you glued to the stage. Everything moves, there’s nothing static at all (in fact, in many scenes there may only be one small set piece like a garbage can or a desk). Angles everywhere, amazing colors, projections, and video screens. It’s something that can’t be described well enough in words, since the set changes once every minute or so.
1) The Aerial Work
When Spider-Man comes on stage (not just Peter Parker) you know that stunts are going to follow, and that’s worth it all. The stunts are mind-blowing and they happen above the audience with no net. Spidey and the Green Goblin wrestle as they’re swinging from balcony to balcony, and you know that if something goes wrong, everyone will die. It’s a lot like the circus, if the circus had 15 minute-long pauses where people sang forgettable songs to each other and talked about feelings. I’ll admit, I was all giddy when I saw Spider-Man land on the balcony in front of me.
Now that we’ve said something nice, we are morally and legally allowed to explain what sucked horrible, horrible ass.
5 BAD THINGS ABOUT THE SPIDEY MUSICAL:
5) The Staging
I don’t pretend to know a lot about theater, despite virtually everyone I know being involved with it in some fashion, but I know bad staging when I see it. And I saw it. A lot. Admittedly, when the sets are used, they’re amazing, but they aren’t used the entire time — pretty much every song is delivered on a blank stage with spotlights while nothing happens. Peter Parker and Mary Jane stand there and sing at each other and it’s BORING and it happens every time they have a song together. In the first song they don’t even sing at each other, they’re in two different places and neither is interesting. These dead spaces kill any momentum the show had going for it.
In contrast, the action scenes make the emotional scenes irrelevant. It’s the typical complaint about musicals, once something interesting happens it slows down so someone can have a song. The action scenes are great, but they’re inevitably brought back down to zero by singing a song about how being a hero is hard. There is absolutely no emotional connection with any of the characters, since each one gets about three minutes of stage time and maybe one song. You don’t care that Peter missed MJ’s show, because it’s taking away from the coolness of fighting the Green Goblin. And hell, once you’ve gone from a fist fight 80 feet above your head, the last thing you want to see is Peter Parker whine some more. Plus, there are so many trap doors in the floor that you’re afraid someone’s going to fall in. It’s distracting.
4) The Dialogue
The script blows. Jameson, sure, we’ll give him some kudos, and the Green Goblin as well, but overall, the dialogue is laughably bad (and we laughed at it!). Most of the wretchedness comes from the “Geek Chorus,” four comic nerds who are either “writing the greatest Spider-Man story ever,” or somehow taking part in it as well. It’s not clear and that makes them either annoyances or annoyances who are on stage too much. Take your pick.
The geeks sort of tell you the plot of the story, but mostly what they do is argue amongst themselves about particulars that grind the show to a halt. They’re seriously the drum solo of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. And that’s really the speedbump of the show, because none of the dialogue matters. It eats up time and awkwardly transitions into songs, but it’s like none of the characters listen to each other, but still talk, talk, talk. And while part of Spider-Man’s allure is that he’s a real hero with real problems, those problems are really dull when they’re whined about every time he comes on stage. I wanted to hit this show so bad.
The best line though, after the bullies are done beating on Peter Parker, as they’re walking off: “Let’s go get some tacos!”
3) The Villains
Fail. Everywhere. Just one missed opportunity after another. It turns out that the Green Goblin isn’t the ultimate villain, it’s really Arachne, the Green patron saint of spiders. She killed herself in ancient Greece and now she’s given spider-powers to Peter Parker. When he says, “Spider-Man no more!” she gets pissed that he rejects her gift and sends all of his rogues to destroy the city. Spider-Man is never shown fighting these villains, he just kind of runs at the screen they’re projected on and they blow up. Seriously. I felt cheated.
The list of rogues is long, but the quantity is undercut by quality. Kingpin and Hammerhead and some guy with an eye patch are up first and they look cool, with bizarre Bread and Puppet masks, and Green Goblin looks neat, I’ll give them that. But then the geeks decide to add more villains by holding an “ugly pageant (?)” where all the bad guys can strut down a runway in a sequence that should not be as gay as it is.
Carnage is up first and he looks like a Halloween costume made out of bike helmet material. Basically stupid. Then Kraven, who has a roaring lion on his chest. He kind of prances and cracks a whip a lot. Then the Lizard, who transforms from an overweight bald man with one arm to one of those inflatable Halloween decorations for your lawn. It looks silly and everyone laughed at Lizard. Electro might be the best, since his costume is so odd anyway that the Taymor glitter actually improved it (and sparks came from his hands!). And then there’s Swarm, who is supposed to be made out of bees but actually is made out of a beehive-looking thing with little bees on wires coming out from it. Basically, it looked like a walking pile of shit with flies around it.
And a lot of bitching has been done about Swiss Miss, the new character that Taymor added. She’s not that bad. One of the geeks just throws her in there and says, “It’s a character that I made up just now!” which adequately explains it. And the costume’s not so bad. Sadly, Swiss Miss is just another wasted opportunity.
2) The Music
At even the worst of shows you usually come out of it whistling at least one song. Not here, none of the U2 drivel is memorable, except maybe for the lead guitar part every time Spider-Man does something. I was singing it for hours afterwards, which pissed my girlfriend off. Weeedley-weeeeeeeeeee, weeedley weeeeeeee.
The worst is the bizarre, out-of-place chorus tune where Arachne and her spider-girls sing about shoes. They put on shoes and show off their shoes and talk about how they all have shoes. Bono wrote this shit.
Overwhelmingly, most of the music just plain sucks. It’s U2 rock anthem garbage, with lyrics that say more about Bono than they do about Spider-Man. The Green Goblin’s song is well-delivered, but I can’t remember anything else about it except everyone laughed. Mary Jane’s last song was really good though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it shows up in more than a few cabaret shows down the line. But every line that Peter Parker shouts is just emo nonsense, and Arachne’s songs are all along the lines of “I’ll get you, my pretty!”
1) The Plot
It’s hard to figure out where to start, because the plot is so hard to figure out. Arachne starts out as a mythological figure and an allegorical character, but by the end she comes to earth and is pissed that the Daily Bugle isn’t covering her crime wave. It’s so petty that it makes your head spin. Uncle Ben dies, not by a thief, but from a car accident. Anyone familiar with the Spider-Man mythos (and one would assume Julie Taymor was one of them) knows that the guilt over letting the thief go is what drives Peter Parker to be a hero, but here it’s just, “Aw hell, Uncle Ben’s dead.”
There are a bunch of dream sequences, lifted from Taymor’s The Lion King, and a lot of the plot of the first movie is rehashed. Peter fights the gayest street gang since the Jets fought the Sharks in a tub of Jell-o, and it’s all silly dance fighting. Things jump around a lot and Spider-Man is captured and de-masked by the Green Goblin even before we really see them fight. It’s jumbled and sloppy, and hampered by constant scene changes that distract the audience from paying attention. Huge plot holes exist and huge departures from the source material as well, and the real Arachne vs Spider-Man plot doesn’t even begin until three-quarters of the way through.
In closing, I know this was a long list, but I just had to tell you the truth about this awful, awful mistake of a play. At the end, when the cast came out for bows, I had never seen a drearier, more apologetic-looking group of people in my life. No standing ovations, people just headed for the doors.
Springtime….for Hitler…and Germany…