The Spider-Man Musical Review: Amazing Spectacle, Baffling WTF
ComicsAlliance recently had an opportunity to attend a preview of the Spider-Man musical, oddly titled Turn Off the Dark, before the recent accident that sent one performer plunging two stories in an acrobatic accident. While we don't know what the future will hold for the beleaguered show, we know what we saw: a performance packed with so much spectacle and insanity that it seems as if every idea anyone ever had got green lit. There were expressionistic sets that look like they were stolen from 'Metropolis,' aerial battles, Bam! Kapow! pop ups straight out of Adam West Batman, Kabuki dances, a Greek "geek" chorus, rock 'n' roll numbers, animation on floor to ceiling LED screens, and an enormous amount of forced perspective, often from conflicting perspectives. But despite the crush of experimental spectacle when the play works, as it did in the aerial battle between Spider-Man that occurs feet above the audience, it is breathtaking and awe-inducing.
The first two acts of the play should be very familiar to anyone who watched the Spider-Man movies: Peter gets bit, Uncle Ben dies, and after defeating many villains Spider-Man hangs up his mask to study hard and marry Mary Jane. But, the play does have a few major twists such as the integration of the story of Arachne, the Greek myth of the mortal woman who dared to challenge Athena's weaving and was turned into a spider as her reward. Arachne, now a magical giant spider, chooses Spider-Man as the champion to lift her curse. When Spider-Man tries to return to being just Peter Parker, Arachne terrifies New York with illusions of the Sinister Six until he returns to confront her.
With that in mind, here are our suggestions for what should stay and what should be cut from Turn Off the Dark if the show goes on. Obviously, spoilers follow.
The Aerial Battles: Easily the single best part of the play are the high flying wire acrobatic battles that take place over the audiences heads (or directly in front of you if you are in the balcony). Besides looking fantastic, there is also an element of genuine fear when you watch them fight -- and that was even before the recent two-story fall. There were moments in the battles where Spider-Man was knocked out of the air and landed, hard, in the aisles between startled patrons. In an early performance one Spider-Man actor's wrists were broken.
Norman Osborn...being Southern, Environmentalist, Dr. Monroe: Patrick Page's smooth-talking Norman Osborn might seem unfamiliar to some comic book fans, but it just works. Both as Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin he delivers some of the best lines in the play and he sings an entire musical number about how humans need to be genetically modified with super powers in order to survive the impending environmental apocalypse. To quote the song, "DNA is the way / now that evolution has had its day!"
Peter and Mary Jane's Starlit Fire Escape Picnic: One of the biggest problems with the "Turn Off the Dark" preview I saw was that most of the best musical numbers didn't feature Spider-Man or Mary Jane at all. But, towards the end of the play there is a beautiful moment where Peter and Mary Jane picnic on their fire escape during a blackout. The fire escape is suspended in the air center stage with a black backdrop full of small holes to imitate artificial starlight, and the effect is magical.
Arachne: I strongly suspect that Julie Taymor sees herself as a Arachne, particularly when she gives her lines like "I'm the only real artist working today." That said, everything about Arachne is amazing. If spiders creep you out, then her costume will make you shudder, especially when she's dangling from a thread directly over you. She also has many of the best songs and at one point, flying women weave an enormous tapestry while she sings.
The "Geek" Chorus - The Greek "geek" chorus are four comic book fans nerding out over the ultimate Spider-Man story, which becomes the play and frames everything. The end result of this device is that every scene is either preceded or followed by a painfully explicit explanation of what is happening, slowing the entire story down to a crawl.
Pretend Slow Motion - Remember when 'The Matrix' came out and people would imitate Neo's slow motion dodging of bullets? Well, it's not the '90s anymore, but there are still a lot of people pretending to be in slow motion in this play, and it looks just as bad as when your friends used to do it.
The Resolution at the Ending: For reasons that never made clear, Spider-Man agrees to stay with Arachne on the Astral Plane which somehow removes her curse and ends the play. Basically, the play just ends for reasons that are never justified or explained anywhere else in the story.
Amazing Spectacle and Baffling WTF:
Giant, Inflated Bone Saw: Bone Saw is played by a giant inflated doll and when Spider-Man wrestles him he looks like nothing so much as a kid fighting a clown bop bag.
Giant, Cut Out, Pop Ups: At one point, a gigantic cut out Spider-Man pops out and catches a gigantic, cut out falling baby. It is one of those moments where you look at the people sitting next to you and say, "So, that just happened." The pop ups come out a lot during the play, but they never seem to lose their novelty.
Kabuki Masks- These over-sized, bobble head masks don't work, except when they do. If you dig the campy, cartoon humor that comes from having bobble-head super villains, then you'll love the masks. If you can't get past the frozen expressions and the fact that their heads are way too big for their bodies, then a large portion of this play is not going to work for you.
Shoes - Yes, shoes. Arachne's sexy, demon, spider-women all have six shapely legs, two of which are real, and four of which are puppet legs which look so disturbingly real it is hard to discern which is which. They do a delightful musical number just before the climax of the play about a looted shoe shop that would be wonderful except that it makes absolutely no sense. It seems like it was, pardon the pun, just shoe horned in.