A couple of disclosures before I proceed:
I am a huge nerd. I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog. But in the interest of transparency, yes, I love comic books and superheroes and cartoons featuring comic book superheroes. Incidentally, Spidey is one of my top two favorites; the other spot in my heart is occupied by Batman. I want those two to get together and have kids and rule the DC/Marvel universe… like Bert and Ernie, only gay.
I’m also a musical theater fanatic. I see shows more than once. Sometimes more than twice. I have autographed playbills and photos with cast members and all other manner of theater geekery. My Broadway dreams were first planted by a friend of mine in high school when, after my debut as Knight #2 in Once Upon A Mattress, she mentioned that I’d make a great Engineer in Miss Saigon. The rest, they say, is history.
That said, it was with great trepidation that I saw Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark this past weekend. After faithfully following the musical’s off-stage drama for a good portion of last year, I couldn’t not see the show, regardless of what the “professional” critics said. I couldn’t not be part of Julie Taymor and Bono and the Edge’s great experiment, especially if that experiment involved two of my favorite things.
And the verdict? I loved this show.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is spectacular. It’s not perfect, but it does effectively what a live-action superhero musical needs to do. It evokes feelings of child-like wonder and awe, using the tools of sight and sound near perfectly to transport the audience back to our collective childhoods when possibilities were endless and we could imagine fully-realized worlds with super men and wonder women.
The goose bumps I felt when Spider-Man first takes the stage to leap out into the audience are not unlike the ones I got when I saw Spidey grace the big screen for the first time in Sam Raimi’s 2002 film. The sheer exhilaration of seeing the webslinger flying around the theater is alone worth the price of admission. My mouth was agape for most of the show—amazed at the genius of its creators. Say what you will about all the negative press since the show’s inception, but by golly, they did it. They created a musical about a superhero and made him fly.
Some highlights for me:
- The Story. Co-book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s rewrites to the story serve the show well. The Green Goblin is a kooky character to begin with, but to create in Norman Osborn a sympathetic character (like Raimi did with Doc Ock in Spidey 2) was a smart choice. Recasting Arachne as a guardian angel figure was also a terrific change and should satisfy the purists who cried foul when they heard about the infusion of Greek mythology into the show. The parallel between Arachne’s fall from grace and Norman Osborn’s descent into madness—thanks to their larger-than-life hubris—provides a great moral underpinning to the show that makes it more than just a theme park attraction as some have claimed it to be. In fact, were this a longer musical, it might have been interesting to see Spider-Man struggle with that conflict as well. But I’ll take what I get.
- The Visuals. In truth, it’s the gorgeous, stunning, eye-popping, how’d-they-do-that visual effects that make this show. From the comic book-inspired set pieces to the clever use of moving video screen panels to the much-ballyhooed high-flying stunt work, you simply have to see all of it to believe it. This show has created unique iconographies in its staging, the likes of which I’ve never seen before on- or off-Broadway. For that, the show’s creators need to congratulate themselves. If anything, they’ve just raised the bar on what a theater-going experience should look and feel like.
- The Score. I listened to the album incessantly before seeing the show. Turns out it’s not complete; there are a whole lot more songs in the score. For U2 fans, the score bleeds Bono and the Edge, and it’s good. There are a couple of misses (e.g., I was thrown by the lack of a strong opening number), but all in all, the songs create a coherent universe and provide the characters ample opportunity for development. And I guarantee you’ll be humming that guitar riff long after you leave the theater. Highlights were “Bouncing Off the Walls,” “Rise Above,” and “Turn Off the Dark.”
- The Leads. The three people to see this show for: Reeve Carney as Peter Parker, Patrick Page as the Green Goblin, and T.V. Carpio as Arachne. I could go on about this cast, but the three of these actors in particular capture their roles so perfectly that I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing them. That’s a superhuman feat in and of itself.
And a couple of lowlights:
- The Choreography. It’s odd that a fantastical world wouldn’t involve more fantastical choreography. Most out of sync for me was the choreography around “DIY World,” which chronicled the visit of high school students to Osborn’s lab . There were some attempts at hip-hop, which would have worked well if the song was a number from In the Heights. If you’re going to sing about how to improve yourself using genetic enhancements—especially during a song in 3/4 time—the choreography needs to match.
- The Costumes. I can’t believe I’m writing this, especially after seeing the much maligned Sinister Six costumes in person, but I wanted their—and the ensemble’s—costumes to be more, again, fantastical. Spidey, Green Goblin, and Arachne were more than fine. But the show’s creators should really crank the dial up on the wonderful weirdness of the other characters. If we’re going to inhabit the fantastical world of genetically enhanced mutants, they should have gone all out and erred on the side of too much rather than too little. Taymor should have taken a page from The Lion King and focused more on fleshing out the masks and costumes for the supervillains. And you know what would have made the reveal of the Sinister Six a little more awesome? A transformation scene to cap Act One. That would have caused me to pee my pants in geekery right there and then.
- The Scene Transitions. Boy were there some awkward transitions between scenes. Some scenes started abruptly, others kind of just petered out. I think they could have been helped by a stronger instrumental score. There were a few scenes that were so painfully silent that I wanted to run and grab the baton from the orchestra conductress just to heighten the emotional impact of the characters’ conversations with some ambient sound.
The bottom line: This show is not to be missed. It’s far from perfect, but its low points are easily, easily overshadowed by its high points. Given the critics’ savage attacks of Julie Taymor’s frenetic vision—admittedly misguided as it may have been at times, it’s unlikely that you’ll see a more original, more daring, and frankly, more ballsy production anytime soon.
I geeked out watching the show as a comic book nerd/musical theater dork mutant hybrid. Those without such credentials might wonder if they’d have a different experience.
But I can guarantee you this: If you park your adult-sized cynicism at the door and allow yourself to believe in a world where masked heroes can soar above skyscrapers, you’ll have a uniquely spectacular experience you won’t soon forget.