For those reading, please keep in mind that this is a review of a preview performance of this musical and may not represent the final product.
For the first time since 1966, a Broadway musical has been created based on a comic book character. Unlike “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman!”, it has a larger budget than a dozen independent movies and an incoherent plot to go with it.
I’m getting ahead of myself. In order to explain how “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” both succeeds and fails, heavy spoilers will be required. If you are the sort that doesn’t like spoilers, stop reading now. You have been warned.
Still here? Okay then.
I suppose before I begin to nitpick, I should mention that the show was visually stunning. It cost in the neighborhood of $60 million to make. It shows in both the sets (which are a combination of computer animation and complex sets that show New York City at very interesting angles) and costumes (which have a degree of complexity all their own). I was even concerned, upon seeing the promotional photos, that Spider-Man’s costume would simply be a copy of the movie costume, but there are subtle differences that I believe improve on it, particularly with the eyepieces.
However, if visuals aren’t enough and you depend on concepts such as plot, this might not be the show for you. This is a shame, as the first act actually seemed pretty cohesive story-wise.
The first act basically tells the origin story of Spider-Man, taking concepts from both the original comics and the first Spider-Man movie with Tobey Maguire. Peter Parker loves the girl next door, Mary Jane Watson. He gets bitten by a genetically engineered spider (which is the result of Norman Osborn’s genetic experiments, taking a page from the Ultimate Spider-Man line of comics). He decides at first to use the power he gets to make money. But then, Uncle Ben dies in a manner that is indirectly Peter’s fault (which is a new method unique to the play but still is loyal to the fundamental concepts behind his death). Out of guilt, Peter becomes Spider-Man.
Norman Osborn (who is a scientist and not a businessman in this version) performs genetic self-experimentation and becomes the Green Goblin. It should be noted that a new element is added to this incarnation in which Osborn is married and his wife is a fellow scientist (son Harry is not even mentioned). She is killed during the experiment that creates the Green Goblin. The addition of Osborn’s wife adds an interesting element since Osborn is responsible for her death in the same manner that Peter is responsible for Uncle Ben’s and he becomes a fractured mirror of Peter by becoming a super-villain.
Peter tries to make money by selling pictures to the Daily Bugle. The Green Goblin appears and learns his identity. The Goblin kidnaps Mary Jane. A climactic battle ensues (performed aerially over the audience) and the Green Goblin is defeated. End of Act 1.
Sadly, this is where the story stops making sense.
Stops making sense
If you were to see this show, my recommendation is to use intermission as an opportunity to walk outside and smoke some pot. I believe that is the only way Act II could make sense to anybody. At the very least, it would make the visuals more trippy.
In the first act, the story is narrated by the “Geek Chorus,” a set of nerds (and a woman) trying to write a Spider-Man story. In the second act, we learn that they are, in fact, creations of the Greek character Arachne (she’s an actual Greek myth. Look her up). Arachne played a small part in Spider-Man’s creation in the beginning, adding a mystical element to his creation (it is implied that she is the spider that bit Peter). Her role expands a great deal for the second act in a way that shatters the willing suspension of disbelief.
It’s easy to spot the moment the narrative falls apart. It’s when Arachne’s henchwomen start to wear stolen shoes on their eight legs. There is even a song about it.
The creators turned this mythic character that is pitched as Spider-Man’s ultimate foe into a character from “Sex and the City”. I’m sorry. I recognize that you’re trying to create a musical that appeals to the maximum number of people, but it just doesn’t work.
‘Sex and the City’?
Like the Spider-Man sequel, Peter decides to stop being Spider-Man because it’s ruining his life. Unlike the sequel, Arachne gets pissed off and tries to make him wear the costume again. It kinds of makes sense while writing it, but it doesn’t come across that way during the show.
After the first act ended, it felt as if the writers had no idea what to do next. There are traces of good narrative in the second act, such as when Peter is sensually floating atop Arachne, but those moments are few and far between. The second act even seems to end suddenly.
The music…sort of
I haven’t even gotten to the music yet. One complaint I’ve always had about U2 is that their songs sound identical to each other. It’s all variations on the guitar lick that starts off “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (there’s an in-joke reference to that song in the show as well). Well, that lick can be found in this musical, and while not every song sounds alike (Bono and the Edge try to mix musical styles, including a rock-calypso), at least three different songs in the show do.
There are no songs that really stay in your mind when the show ends, like “Out Tonight” from “Rent” or “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked.” I supposed “Bouncing off the Walls” from the first act may come close, but doesn’t quite cut it.
The biggest scene-chewers are the Spider-haters, the Green Goblin and J. Jonah Jameson. The Goblin is more fun than Jameson, given his Southern drawl. I view that as a missed opportunity. They should have been channeling J.K. Simmons from the movie version for that role.
There are also some in-joke references to some of the Spider-Man creators over the years. Keep an ear out for names like Lee, Kirby, Ditko, and Straczynski. The super-villain character of “Swiss Miss” was created specifically for the show (by the previously-mentioned female in the Geek Chorus), but thankfully, other than the name, she doesn’t come across any sillier than the other super-villains lifted from the comics.
The entire Geek Chorus represents a wasted opportunity. First off, they come across as more Goth than Geek. Second, if you’re going to parody a Greek Chorus, then you should actually have them sing rather than speak the narration as a Greek Chorus usually does. But that’s a minor quibble.
The whole play seems to be about fate vs. choice, but that theme gets lost somewhere during the second act. It’s a shame, really. Such universal themes have always been tantamount to both Spider-Man and musicals.
Bring the kids?
The show takes between 2.5 and 3 hours to run including intermission, but it doesn’t seem that long thanks to the spectacle. Still, if you bring kids, I hope they’re the patient sort.
In the end, the show would have done better in terms of the narrative extending Act I into the two acts. Or perhaps it would have been better as one of those stadium shows geared towards kids, given the computer-animation and set/costume design. The first act is certainly kid-friendly.
My best recommendation would be to catch the show as soon as possible if you’re a Spider-Fan, because I don’t see it lasting long. You can even purchase one of the overpriced ($40) flimsy t-shirts like I did.
Brad Trechak lives in Hudson County. He has written for numerous other publications, including TV Squad and The Black Table. He has been a lot of things: a thespian, a stand-up comic, a singer, a ring-announcer, a professional wrestler, a reporter, a programmer, and a graphic designer. He’s still hoping to achieve his dream of being a superhero. His website can be found at http://www.trechak.com.