Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark
By BEN BRANTLEY
There is something to be said for those dangerous flying objects — excuse me, I mean actors — that keep whizzing around the Foxwoods Theater, where the mega-expensive musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” has entered the latest chapter of its fraught and anxious existence. After all, if you’re worried that somebody might fall on top of you from a great height, the odds are that you won’t nod off.
Those adrenaline-raising acrobatics are a necessary part of the lumpy package that is “Spider-Man,” which had its long-delayed official opening on Tuesday night, after 180-some preview performances. First seen and deplored by critics several months ago — when impatient journalists (including me) broke the media embargo for reviews as the show’s opening date kept sliding into a misty future — this singing comic book is no longer the ungodly, indecipherable mess it was in February. It’s just a bore.
So is this ascent from jaw-dropping badness to mere mediocrity a step upward? Well, until last weekend, when I caught a performance of this show’s latest incarnation, I would have recommended “Spider-Man” only to carrion-feasting theater vultures. Now, if I knew a less-than-precocious child of 10 or so, and had several hundred dollars to throw away, I would consider taking him or her to the new and improved “Spider-Man.”
The first time I saw the show, it was like watching the Hindenburg burn and crash. This time “Spider-Man” — which was originally conceived by the (since departed) visionary director Julie Taymor with the rock musicians Bono and the Edge (of U2) — stirred foggy, not unpleasant childhood memories of second-tier sci-fi TV in the 1960s, with blatantly artificial sets and actors in unconvincing alien masks.
“Spider-Man” may be the only Broadway show of the past half-century to make international headlines regularly, often with the adjective “troubled” attached to its title. So I’m assuming you already know at least a bit of its long and tortuous history of revision, cancellation, indecision and injury (from production-related accidents), and of its true star.
That would be Ms. Taymor (who retains an “original direction by” credit), who in the 1990s was hailed as the new Ziegfeld after reinventing a Disney animated film, “The Lion King,” as a classy, mass-appeal Broadway blockbuster. The prospect of her hooking up with Spidey, the nerdy-cool Marvel Comics crime fighter, seemed like a swell opportunity for another lucrative melding of pageantry, puppetry and culture high and low.
Those elements were certainly in abundance in the “Spider-Man” I saw several months ago. That production, which featured a script by Ms. Taymor and Glen Berger, placed its young superhero in a broader meta-context of Greek mythology and American Pop art, with a “geek chorus” of commentators and a classical goddess named Arachne as the morally ambiguous mentor of Spidey and his awkward alter ego, Peter Parker.
Unfortunately, traditional niceties like a comprehensible plot and characters got lost in the stew. After critics let loose with howls of derision, “Spider-Man” took a three-week performance hiatus to reassemble itself, with tools that included audience focus groups. Exit Ms. Taymor. (Bono, the Edge and Mr. Berger stayed put.)
Enter Philip William McKinley — a director whose credits include several versions of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” — and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a writer of both plays and comic books. Now if you check out the directory of paid theater listings in The New York Times, you’ll see that the title “Spider-Man” is prefaced by the promising (if slightly desperate-sounding) words: “REIMAGINED! New Story! New Music!”
This is not false advertising. “Spider-Man” now bears only a scant resemblance to the muddled fever dream that was. It is instead not unlike one of those perky, tongue-in-cheek genre-spoof musicals (“Dames at Sea,” “Little Shop of Horrors”) that used to sprout like mushrooms in Greenwich Village, with witty cutout scenery and dialogue bristling with arch quotation marks.
Well, that is, if you could imagine such a show being stripped of its irony and supersized by a diabolical mad scientist with an enlarging ray. Though “Spider-Man” has shed its geek chorus and scaled down the role of Arachne (T. V. Carpio), it retains the most spectacular-looking centerpieces from the Taymor version. (George Tsypin is the set designer.) They include a vertiginous vision of Manhattan as seen from the top of the Chrysler Building, judiciously repositioned for plot purposes.
But they do seem out of proportion to what has become a straightforward children’s entertainment with a mildly suspenseful story, two-dimensional characters, unapologetically bad jokes and the kind of melodious rock tunes that those under 12 might be familiar with from listening to their parents’ salad-day favorites of the 1980s and ’90s. The puppet figures and mask-dominated costumes worn by the supporting villains still seem to have wandered in from a theme park. The projection designs by Kyle Cooper continue to suggest vintage MTV videos, as does the unimaginative choreography by Daniel Ezralow and Chase Brock.
The bonus is that anyone can follow the story now. (Boy is bitten by radioactive spider, boy acquires amazing powers, boy fights crime, boy has doubts, boy triumphs.) And the performers no longer seem overwhelmed by what surrounds them. Their characters now register as distinct if one-note personalities.
In the title role Reeve Carney is an appropriately nonthreatening crush object for tweens, an appealingly agitated Everydweeb with great cheekbones and a sanitized, lite version of a concert rocker’s voice. He is well paired with the wryly sincere Jennifer Damiano (“Next to Normal”) as Mary Jane Watson, Peter’s girlfriend.
Ms. Carpio’s Arachne (now a beneficent fairy godmother rather than an erotically troubling dream spider) provides the most arresting vocal moments with her ululating nasality. Michael Mulheren is suitably blustery and fatuous as the pandering newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson. And Patrick Page, as the megalomaniacal scientist who becomes the evil mutant called the Green Goblin, provides the one reason for adults unaccompanied by minors to see the show.
His role has been expanded, and Mr. Page uses the extra time not just to terrorize the audience amiably, as you expect mean green scene stealers to do. (He has charmingly reinvented that staple of melodramatic villains, the sustained insane cackle.) He also has become the show’s entertaining id, channeling and deflecting our own dark thoughts about this lopsided spectacle.
“I’m a $65 million circus tragedy,” he crows at one point. “Well, more like 75 million.”
But even Mr. Page is only a sideshow (not to switch metaphors) to the main event. And that’s the sight of real people — mostly stuntmen — flying over the audience, and the implicit danger therein. (An amplified voice warns the audience not only to turn off their cellphones but also to avoid trying to catch a ride with the professional fliers.)
Unlike the first time I saw “Spider-Man,” the flying (the first instance of which occurs about 45 minutes into the show) went off without a hitch on this occasion. The potential magic is undercut, though, by the very visible wires and harnesses that facilitate these aerodynamics.
Partly because the performers are masked, you experience little of the vicarious wonder and exhilaration that comes from watching Peter Pan or even Mary Poppins ride the air in other musicals. The effect is rather like looking at anonymous daredevils who have been strapped into a breakneck ride at an amusement park. Come to think of it, Coney Island might be a more satisfying choice.