I can't believe I am actually writing this review after blogging about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark since August 31, 2009! It was the subject of my second blog ever, and so it is with a sense of history and a feeling that I have, in a way, suffered the journey with the company that I write this. You have no idea how badly I want to be able to rave about this production. There are certainly some rave-worthy elements, but there is one element of the show which seriously holds me back.
That said, this review will not chronicle the myriad of changes that show has gone through - having witnessed the "birth," the difficult "teens" and now the final, "all grown up version" - I certainly could, and with first-hand knowledge. Perhaps in another blog, when I've had time to fully digest what I've seen over the last 8 months. Instead, I am going to attempt to review this show as it stands today without comparison to previous versions. Two caveats to this: first, I have seen Reeve Carney in previous viewings, and I saw Matthew James Thomas this time, so I will offer a comment or two in comparison; and second, I will likely have to note the remnants of Julie Taymor's vision that I can recognize within this newer, "re-imagined" version.
First things first. Like Cats and Starlight Express well before it, Spider-Man is not "just" a spectacle as has been reported, nor is it "just" a musical. It is a hybrid of both forms, and succeeds marvelously as a spectacle and reasonably well as a musical. The entirety of the "spectacle" aspect of the show lays firmly and surely in the hands of the mistress of spectacle, Julie Taymor, and her team of designers. Together they have created a mind-blowing visual treat that both astonishes and provokes thought. Ms. Taymor's key visual moments have remained largely intact. Chief among these moments is the breathtaking "The Myth of Arachne." It is absolutely, jaw-droppingly stunning to watch as her story unfolds and her swinging minions chant her story as a giant weaving is created before our eyes. There are also the signature Taymor masks, grotesque as they are humorous, in this case capturing the silliness of comic book criminals - small time and ridiculous. Then there are the more psychological moments that capture both the mind and the heart, such as when Arachne (T.V. Carpio) releases Peter from her tutelage, allowing him to make his own choices, all while alerting him to dangers ahead; she reassures him he has all it takes to "turn off the dark," both in his inner turmoil and the darkness that has descended over New York City. In that scene, Arachne and Peter (asleep and dreaming) float high above in an infinite, star-filled space, slowly spinning around, over and under each other as though actually weightless. It was a relief that this new version retained the striking visual elements and a fair amount of the emotional and psychological heft of earlier versions. This despite reports that the show has now been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.
The other aspects of the visual spectacle are as amazing as they are ground-breaking, with each technical designer setting a new high bar for theatrical possibility. Both the set designer (George Tsypin) and costume designer (Eiko Ishioka) have created a spectacular "other world New York City" and in doing so pay homage to the classic form of comic book art and modern, high tech electronica. The two very disparate forms work seamlessly together here, as the story of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson literally unfolds before us, in giant set pieces that look like cartoon drawings, from the fold-down, pop-up book style of the high school, to the walk home through the streets of Queens, where the perspective continuously changes and the two dimensional drawings fold and unfold like comic book origami, ultimately revealing 2D/3D versions of homes.
Perhaps, most interestingly, it is the human story that gets the comic book treatment - the newspaper office, full of black and white pieces of overtly skewed and forced perspective, and even the bad seed of Midtown High's car. And in those scenes, the characters' costumes at first glance look modern, but are edged and "shadowed' with black "sketch streaks"; and everything there is also slightly askew and out of proportion, with 40's style hats, gangsterish zoot suits, and extreme hair (spiked hair is absurdly colored and tall, pin curls are as big as paper towel tubes, pompadours are laughably huge). Yes, just like in comic book reality, here "reality" is ever so gently over-sized and mildly over the top.
And just as the set and costume designers have created two worlds that collide and coexist, lighting designer Donald Holder and projection designer Kyle Cooper have lit up these worlds. The "real life"/comic book look is supported by lighting that is overly bright or creepily shadowy, depending on the mood at the moment, and extreme at both ends of the emotional spectrum. At its darkest moments, all of New York is seen through dim shafts of light; as its impending doom is on the horizon, bright cautionary yellow gives way to blood red. The side projection screen/set pieces reflect a simplistic view of nameless skyscrapers by simply being towering walls of empty, generic windows. Fittingly, these are the times when actors are followed by simple spotlights and conventional lighting does the job. And then, as all hell breaks loose, and our super villain and his cronies emerge to create worldwide havoc, the giant screens slide across the stage in what feels like endless permutations while showing us Jumbo-Tron sized images of "news reels" with CNN-style headline crawlers and startling visual images. And as the final showdown between Spider-Man and his arch nemesis inevitably approaches, it is the Green Goblin who makes use of the gadgetry, while Spider-Man steels himself and gathers strength in simple pools of light and a comic drawing of an apartment. Even Peter Parker's epic emotional moments happen on the barest stage or on the simplest set piece - a fire escape dangling peacefully over a miniature skyline and against a backdrop of pin light stars. It is the ultimate in theatrical design dichotomy: old-school simplicity vs. an overwhelming look at the future of set and costume design. We may never see anything like this again.
The story, too, has a dual edge to it: simple comic book style dialogue and a mostly witty, modern day self-deprecating snarkiness about it. The book is credited to Julie Tamor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Clearly, the more psychologically dense moments (mostly involving Arachne and Peter's struggle with power and personal gain versus responsibility) are Taymor and Bergers. I am pleased to report that these moments are now framed by Aguirre-Sacasa's exposition scenes and knack for writing snatches of dialogue that are truly in comic book style. (He has actually written some Spider-Man comic books and it shows.) A closer look at the book scenes, and likely a decent amount of the staging, will probably show single ideas spoken in snatches of 3 or 4 or 6 "frame" bits of dialogue, just like you would read in an actual comic book. A decent amount of the dialogue, too, tells us plot points rather than showing us, while montages of action scenes propel the story forward. And the dialogue includes decidedly obvious bon mots and platitudes, as well as the often funny quips yelled out by a flying Peter Parker/Spider. These are the hallmark of the "story by" authorship of comic book writing, and SMTOTD craftily sneaks this in.
Nor, unfortunately, is it a Sondheim musical, an Elton John musical or even a Wildhorn musical. And here is my biggest (pretty much only) peeve with the show. Yes, they addressed the storytelling, but not all of the culprits were put in check. The score, by Bono and The Edge, is as frustrating and unsatisfying an entity as I have ever heard. The Spider Man Theme, repeated MANY times throughout, and some other underscoring proves these men can write decent, emotion-packed music. I think they'd be quite successful scoring a James Bond film, where only one decent song is required for radio play. But I think it says a lot that the lowest points remaining in this much improved, but still flawed show all occur during their songs. This is not to say there aren't high points - there are several songs in the score that work with the story that are poetic and beautiful to boot. What does it mean, though, when you consider the very public history of this show, that the same songs that worked during preview 7 are the same ones that work at performance 16, and the rest still stink? It says to me that the other huge problem with 1.0 was never addressed. The result, as I said, is a frustrating score, a few times truly brilliant - "Rise Above," "If the World Should End," and "Boy Falls from the Sky" are amazing songs both in and out of the theatre. And the one really new song, "A Freak Like Me," is a funny, fun to watch Lady Gaga meets Thriller concoction. A couple other songs work well in context, but are instantly forgettable after the scene is over - "Bullying By Numbers," "Bouncing Off the Walls." The rest are as overwrought and pretentious as the names "Bono" and "The Edge." (Do they really think U2 fans are dropping everything to see this show? Get real.) And despite the fact that the book now provides a clear, decent plot to support "DIY World," it is still a creepy, ugly song, as is the truly disturbing "Pull the Trigger," which comes perilously close to recreating those Nazi get-togethers Hitler used to orchestrate with marching minions goose stepping all over the place. Ick. Above average underscoring and a couple of decent songs might work for Cirque de Soleil, but not for a Broadway musical, newly "family friendly" or not.
Still, I will end this review on the positive. The entire company deserves the standing ovations they are receiving for surviving and thriving; no other cast has worked this hard for this long. And their performances, forgive the obvious pun here, always rise above the holes in the plot and the weak musical numbers. The dozen or so "Spider-Men" live up to the character's "Amazing" moniker, each and every one a terrific athlete, acrobat and dancer. Bravo, men, and congratulations! The supporting roles, now meatier, are also well-played, particularly the nasty bad boy, Flash, as played by Luther Creek, and the humble father figure, Uncle Ben, played with interesting spunk by Ken Marks. With more to do now, both do nice work. And the always terrific Isabel Keating, who plays Aunt May, gives the show its warm, loving center. She is absolutely sweet. And Michael Mulheren, who clearly understands the comic book milieu, is a robust, supercilious J.J. Jameson, newspaper man, tale spinner and tabloid guru.
Even though she is in a much diminished role, T.V. Carpio exudes an exotic, mysterious and mildly erotic presence that reaches all the way to the back wall of the balcony as Arachne. She has a lovely voice, hindered only by the one area of sound design that apparently hasn't been fixed. The real issue may be the songs she sings, though, as they are written in a difficult, soprano key and are full of slides and trills reminiscent of Middle Eastern chants. Sure, they sound exotic, but what good are they if you can't understand the words? It is not her fault in the least, and that is apparent in the fact that, despite not being able to understand fully her songs, she still registers a very strong presence.
Patrick Page is the King of Broadway Villainy, with the Green Goblin completing his evil guy trilogy (the Grinch and Scar before this). He is clearly having fun as the Green Goblin, and now seems to really be enjoying the opportunity to play some genuine emotions now in a beefed up role that allows him to show love, compassion and drive (not to mention a sense of right and wrong) which now makes his transformation into the super villain all the more complete, scary and thrilling.
Then there is the central couple, Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker/Spider-Man. And even at the 5th preview I attended, Jennifer Damiano has had the role of MJ down pat. And now that she has so much more to work with, it is wonderful to see a truly talented actress thrive and shine, never once allowing the enormity of what is going on around her take over. The show never feels bigger than when she is in Peter's arms singing "If the World Should End," and there is never a more clear sense of being on her side than when she is dangling by wrists over a cavernous hole opened on the stage many feet below her. Her presence, crystal clear voice and intelligent performance are a hallmark of this show, and as someone who has paid now three times to see the show, I am grateful that she makes every penny worth spending.
The same can be said for both of her leading men, primary Peter Parker, Reeve Carney, who does the angst thing to perfection both as an actor and as a singer. Even at the early preview I saw, he exuded a charm, charisma and serious presence. I remember thinking, all those months ago, "I can't believe this is his debut!" At the performance this review is based upon, his alternate, Matthew James Thomas, played the hero. If you have the good fortune to see one of his performances, do not despair having missed Mr. Carney. Both are terrific, though I have to admit, there is something about the total sum of Mr. Thomas' portrayal and performance that I prefer over Mr. Carney. His awkwardness and geekiness are so genuine and heartfelt, you are on his side from the second he clears his throat and stumbles through his oral report on Arachne. And the guy can SING. His "Boy Falls from the Sky" and "Rise Above" gave me goosebumps. And watching his face when he reveals himself to Mary Jane, who then professes her love for Peter Parker AND Spider-Man, made this theatre geek feel optimistic about finding myself a super hero!
When you can't be more positive than negative about a score, how can a musical theatre lover love a show like this? He can't. But I really liked the overall experience, and recommend that you see it to feel the thrill of flight and the very edge of modern theatre technology. The flying, the scenery and the performances make it money well-spent. I don't regret a single penny or any one of the three times I saw it. For a theatre lover, watching the process was as much a thrill as seeing it come together. I'm just sorry I can't love it as much as I want to.
(Photos by Jacob Kohl. NOTE: There are no official press photos of Matthew James Thomas as Peter Parker/Spider-Man to date. Reeve Carney appears in the included photos with the Original Broadway Cast)
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