July 9, 2011

"Spider-Man" Continues to Dangle in Midair

Regular readers may have noticed that, until now, I’ve barely mentioned the words Spider-Man.  To be honest, what was there left to say?  But I have seen Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark—twice, in fact, once right after it was announced that Julie Taymor had been yanked out of the director’s chair and then more recently after the long-delayed official opening—and so here, finally, is my two cents.

Unless you’ve been in a comma over the past six months, you already know that Taymor and U2's Bono and The Edge planned to combine rock music, circus feats, comic books and classical mythology to create a spectacle the likes of which Broadway had never seen.

And you also probably know that, despite spending $65 million, they failed miserably, becoming the object of front-page news stories, late-night-show punch lines and scathing notices from critics who, tired of waiting for the show to open, bought their own tickets and reviewed it in February. 

After Taymor, who was not only directing but co-writing the book, got the ax, a crew of show doctors was rushed in. They shut down the show for three weeks, jettisoned the most derided parts and tried to refocus the thing on the origin story of the high school nerd who is bitten by a genetically-altered spider and transformed into a reluctant superhero. 

But the newcomers couldn’t really start from scratch and so had to work around the existing design conceits and, alas, the score. While Taymor’s preoccupation with a female spider character she created went overboard, she did give the show some zip. Now, the new book, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who is not only a seasoned playwright but has actually written comic books, comes off as timid, and bland.

Aguirre-Sacasa and Philip William McKinley, who was brought in to direct the show because he’s worked on both Broadway and with real circuses, have even cut back on the aerial sequences, which, of course, are what still draw—and still thrill—most of the people coming to see Spider-Man. Although not me.

I kept worrying that someone might fall, perhaps even on top of my head. And the machinery needed to get the performers aloft is so visible that it further siphons away the magic. Still, if it’s the flying that turns you on, the seats in the center of the first mezzanine seem to be the best place to get your money’s worth.

The rest of the show is a grab bag of hits and misses. For example, two choreographers are listed and it shows. But set designer George Tsypin’s three-dimensional cartoon world and Kyle Cooper’s souped-up video projections are intact and they're clever.

On the other hand, Eiko Ishioka’s costumes are confusing. Many of the supporting characters look as though they stepped out of a 1940s gangster movie but Spider-Man’s alter-ego Peter Parker and his love interest Mary Jane wear contemporary clothes. And the mad scientist who turns into the Green Goblin looks, both before and after his transformation, as though he’s wearing castoffs from Wicked.

The music has problems of its own. The U2 guys were on tour with their band for much of the extended preview period and so weren’t around to make tweaks, write new songs and do all the other things that musical composers usually do as a show is trying to find its footing. They did drop a couple of numbers and added one or two others.  But it hardly matters because very few of the songs are memorable.

The 40-member cast works hard and deserves credit for the long weeks in which they rehearsed during the day and performed at night, all the while dealing with unrelenting media scrutiny and seeing several of their colleagues seriously injured during the complicated flying sequences.

Special props should go to Reeve Carney, who does everything asked of him but, like Aaron Tveit in Catch Me If You Can, somehow gets lost amidst the stagecraft hoopla. Carney is sweet and earnest but he lacks the undercurrent of sadness that made audiences really feel for Toby Maguire’s incarnation of the title character in the movies.

Patrick Page has no trouble standing out as the Goblin, whose climactic battle with Spider-Man has been moved from the first act to the second, and Page seems to be having a great time in his new expanded role.  But as Jack Nicholson and the late Heath Ledger showed in their Batman movies, if you want to be a truly great comic book villain, you need to mix some menace in with the camp. 

The official reviews for Spider-Man are still tepid; StageGrade, the site that aggregates the reviews of the major New York critics, rates the show a C, up from the F+ it got in February. But apparently real people still want to see Spider-Man and it has been selling out these past few summer weeks.

The speculation now is centered around whether enough people will keep turning out for the producers to recoup their investment.  To be honest, I don’t really care if they make their money back or not.  I’ve got other things to think about.  Like—and forgive me if I sound pretentious—what this show might mean for the future of Broadway.

There are already signs that producers, understandably desperate to bring in new audiences, are willing to do whatever it takes to lure them. And so while Mary Martin’s flights as Peter Pan were a novelty 50 years ago, today hoisting actors up in the air has become almost a necessity.  Even Patti LuPone had her feet-off-the-ground moment last fall in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. 

It’s become almost impossible to find a good movie—the indie distributors are bankrupt and the major studios are pushing out one special effects juggernaut after another. I worry that if, despite all its pre-opening woes and critical pans, Spider-Man succeeds, then we theater lovers may find ourselves dangling in the air as well.


RobertP said...

This show was terrible and depressing too ... to think that this might be the future of Broadway. It was like a really boring theme-park ride. Hated it.

jan@broadwayandme said...

RobertP, I agree. But the show has been packing them in over the past few weeks and so it seems a lot of people must want to take the ride. Which is fine; I'm all for the different-strokes-for-different-folks thing. I suppose you and I will just have to keep our fingers crossed that this kind of show won't become the new template for a Broadway musical.