September 7, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Haven’t all the jokes been made?  In the history of Broadway, there may never have been a show as relentlessly ridiculed as SPIDER-MAN:  TURN OFF THE DARK.  At this point, it may be that the only interesting thing that could be said about the show would be if it weren’t as bad as you’d expect.  Sadly, though, that isn’t the case.
The long and miserable history of this misbegotten project is well known and has been exhaustively detailed elsewhere.  Very briefly:  the celebrated director Julie Taymor (Broadway’s smash hit, hugely profitable version of The Lion King) teamed with no less than U2’s Bono and The Edge to create a stage extravaganza based on the comic-book series.  They planned and worked on the musical for years, and as its ambitions mounted, so did the cost.  Investors fell in and out, the scheduled start of production slipped, the biggest names in the original cast (which was to feature Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming) left, and finally, at a cost of $65M–by far the most expensive show in Broadway history–a version of the show began “preview” performances in late November 2010.

This should have been the beginning of the end of the show’s troubles, but it turned out only to be the end of the beginning.  Word of mouth was deadly, and the performances themselves were, if not deadly, certainly dangerous, with repeated injuries to cast members who had to fly around the theatre on wires and harnesses.  Even when people weren’t hurt, often the flying system balked, and performances had to be delayed while the actors hung in mid-air and waited to be rescued.  However, tickets continued to be sold at a brisk pace, and the producers apparently decided they were in no hurry to spoil the fun by inviting the press.  Thus began the longest “preview” period in the history of Broadway, with successive “opening nights” postponed.  Finally critics decided they’d had enough, and began to review the “unfinished” version of the show.  Their reviews were as catastrophic as everyone expected they’d be, and the producers decided to dump Taymor and a great deal of her original, myth-laden conception, and bring in a new creative team, including “Creative Consultant” Philip Wm McKinley as director, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa as a new book writer.   This new, streamlined, and reportedly less bizarre version of the show finally opened to the critics in June 2011 (drawing a tepid, but less vitriolic response), and is now officially playing on Broadway.
And after all that… it’s for the most part a dull, tuneless waste of time, and certainly a waste of $150 for a weeknight orchestra ticket.  Even Spider-Man 3, by far the worst of the Sam Raimi film series, is far superior to this formless, atonal bore.  
The Frankenstein-like cobbled-together nature of this beast is clear from the outset, as its tone is all over the place.  Act I is the origins story familiar from every version of the Spider-Man tale:  Peter Parker (here played by Reeve Carney, who had been in Taymor’s movie of The Tempest), a high-school student much-bullied and hopelessly in love with the beautiful Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano, from Broadway’s Next To Normal and Spring Awakening), is bit by a mutated spider, and finds himself spinning webs and leaping up and down the sides of buildings.  (The musical makes little use of his “Spidey sense,” or some of his other comic-book powers.)  In order to earn a paycheck, Peter finds a job working as a photographer for the awful J.Jonah Jameson (Michael Mulhearn here) at the Bugle, where his convenient specialty is taking photos of the elusive Spider-Man.  Along the way, Peter learns that With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.  In the Broadway version, all this is recounted ploddingly, with little attempt at style or imagination. (The Greek figure Arachne, turned into a spider by the gods, was apparently a key part of Taymor’s conception, but appears only briefly in the current version of the show.) 
Act II is more of an overt mess.  The spider that bit Peter was owned by Norman Osborn (Patrick Page), who becomes the Green Goblin–however, his story as presented here is far more like the Doc Octopus storyline from the Spider-Man 2 movie, crossed with Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s first Batman picture.  In an apparent bid to get some laughs, the Goblin speaks in an exaggerated Southern accent, re-enacts a voice-mail comedy routine that’s at least a decade old, and ultimately plays a burlesque version of “I’ll Take Manhattan” on a green piano on the top of the Chrysler Building.  None of this is scary, exciting or humorous–it’s just desperate (similarly, when the strains of an old U2 song are faintly heard at one point, it’s a mildly funny bit, but when, after that, “Vertigo” is used in a dance scene, it’s a little pathetic). The cast does what it can, but only Damiano emerges with much coherence.  (It should be said, though, that the more Page overacts, the more he pleases the audience.)  Meanwhile, many minor characters wear outsized cartoon heads, an idea that one assumes traces back to Taymor and her fascination for puppetry and masks, while the production design is a mix of giant forced perspective sets and semi-animated projected backdrops.
Even the much-vaunted flying scenes are a disappointment.  Although they’ve apparently been ramped up since McKinley came in (he’s directed as much for the circus as for Broadway), and feature a number where multiple Spider-Men pop up around the theatre using confetti for webs, there’s simply no way the sight of men wearing heavy harnesses and thick wires to fly can substitute for what we routinely see in the movies these days, with those details CG’d out.  Even worse, for the most part, the flyers aren’t the actual actors who play Spider-Man or the Goblin, they’re stuntpeople who circle around while pretaped quips play over the soundsystem, dubbed by the real actors–the effect is so hokey and fake that it’s impossible to suspend disbelief, the opposite of what live theatre is supposed to provide.

The best that can be said for Spider-Man:  Turn Off the Dark is that it serves as a fine trailer for the upcoming movie reboot of the series:  after watching all these amateurs screw up a very serviceable, entertaining franchise, one wants nothing more than to see fine actors like Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in these parts.  As for the musical itself, can it make back its gargantuan investment?  Although grosses have remained over $1M per week and most seats are filled, the show is so expensive to produce that most of that goes to running costs, and little to reimbursing the budget–and it can’t be a good sign that the show has half-price tickets available, not to mention online discounts.    There’s been talk of taking the show on the road, to Vegas and other locales, with sort of a Cirque de Soleil model, and that may be where its future lies. As a Broadway musical, though, its web is downright murderous.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."