The question everyone wants answered is not whether you can see where and how the producers spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million (that’s more than twice the cost of any show in Broadway history), but rather where and how the changes and fixes that have been going on since last November, and most drastically/radically since April, have turned the tide for the accident-plagued musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.”
A new team led by director Philip William McKinley, original writer Glen Berger, and new writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, plus a new song and lyrics by Bono and the Edge and additional choreography by Chase Brock have taken over where director Julie Taymor (“Lion King”) left off when she was forced to abdicate control of the show she had conceived.
Some major reviewers decided to jump the gun in February and pay to see the show — whose opening originally planned for December was postponed indefinitely despite continuing preview performances. The word from the press and the bloggers was generally annihilating. Despite the continued reporting of a series of near tragic accidents due to mechanical problems and human error working with the flying apparatus, the musical continued to play to virtual capacity.
It has finally opened. The result of the new team’s intensive labors has happily resulted in an entertaining, fast-moving, eye-filling comic-book-style musical aimed largely at family audiences.
Those to whom I have spoken who have now seen both versions are almost united in saying that the on-again-off-again-on-again love story and the basic plot involving the battle between Spider Man and the musical’s arch villain, the Green Goblin, are now easier to follow, and this includes the now less intrusive mythological character of Arachne (an exotic presence by T.V. Carpio) that evidently came from Taymor’s vivid imagination.
The musical certainly has more to offer besides the flying sequences that send Spider-Man hurtling through the theater from the stage to the mezzanine and into the rafters. If I have to quibble about the flying it is that there is no magic seeing harnessed performers catapulted through the air. Yet, it is exciting. We expect it at the circus and believe more fully in the possibility when it can be contrived for a film. But on stage it just looks like performers attached to wires (as in “Peter Pan”), as peculiar as visible head mikes that make humans look like they are creatures from outer space.
McKinley, whose background is both theater (“The Boy from Oz”) and circus (Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey) can be congratulated for blending the elements of the circus with the action, romance, and comedy. Taymor’s extraordinary vision and artistry is certainly seen in the wonderfully designed and executed masks worn by the Green Goblin’s cronies, “The Sinister Six.” The breathtaking perspectives given to the Chrysler building and all the various settings are the work of designer George Tsypin. There is also much to praise in the fantastic costumes designed by Eiko Ishioka.
The story is simple enough. Peter Parker (Reeve Carney), the nerdy American teen who gains extraordinary powers after being bitten by a genetically altered spider, not only suddenly feels obligated to fight crime, but also to earn the love of girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano). His biggest obstacle is Norman Osborn (Patrick Page), a mad scientist who turns into the vengeful/evil Green Goblin when an experiment he conducts on himself goes awry.
Spider-Man may be out to save the world, but he also wants to protect his Aunt May (Isabel Keating) from being harmed by his death-and-destruction-obsessed nemesis. The in-air battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin takes place directly over the heads of the audience in Act II. It is the action highlight of the show and the one stunt among many that gets the audience to gasp, scream with delight, and applaud.
Although loud as is the custom nowadays, the sound system generously permits most of the lyrics to be heard, adding to the enjoyment of the rock score, most of which is commendably palatable and on occasion tuneful. A duet sung by Peter and Mary Jane in what seems to be a giant spider web spun into the sky is especially lovely. It was used to great effect recently on the Tony telecast. Both Carney and Damiano are attractive and appealing and earn our admiration not only for their fine performances but also for what has been for them and the other members of the cast a grueling test of talent and stamina.
Although Page’s Green Goblin is a formidable and fearsome villain, he takes every opportunity to impose a comical edge to his performance, earning the audience’s approval despite his dastardly deeds. The Green Goblin’s grinning rendition of the old Rogers and Hart song “I’ll Take Manhattan” as played on a green piano is very funny. It is the humor interpolated in the musical that saves the day for me, that is, besides Spider Man’s daring exploits amidst the skyscrapers. Michael Mulheren is also quite funny as the bullying and berating editor of the Daily Bugle.
In some respects, it’s good that the show did not open in time to contend for a Tony award. It certainly has a better chance now for next season when I’m pretty sure it will still be thrilling family audiences. It may not be the greatest musical on earth, but when it soars with everything the theater can allow it certainly hits a high. ***
“Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” Foxwoods Theater, 213 West 42nd Street. $67.50 to $140. 877-250-2929.