Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a blast, an exhilarating piece of theatre, and the most fun I’ve had at a Broadway musical since In The Heights.
You hear that? It’s good. It’s really, really good. Maybe I was more impressed with it than I would have been had my expectations not been lowered by the abysmal to indifferent word of mouth that the musical has generated over the past three years. Maybe my own personal biases (I do love me some Spidey) are clouding my judgement. Whatever. This is a show that is the big-budget visual spectacle that a Spider-Man stage production should be, and an artistic accomplishment far beyond what you’d encounter at your average theme park stunt show.
A brief production history: visionary director Julie Taymor, whose fingerprints are all over the show although she has long since been removed from the active creative team, imagined and oversaw a high-flying and never-been-tried-on-Broadway spectacle, creating dynamic pieces of staging, costumes, and set design that strained to burst free from the constraints of your typical Broadway house. However, she also wove into the original production a weird sub-plot featuring the mythological figure Arachne, a fan-pandering “geek” chorus, and a near incomprehensible avant-garde Act 2.
Even after early critics panned what was an awesome but incomprehensible mess of a show, Ms. Taymor refused to bow to her producers’ creative wishes and she was summarily dismissed from her duties. Script doctor Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a playwright and former Marvel comics scribe, was brought on board in order to make the Spider-Man musical feel more like a Spider-Man story and not like a bad acid trip. Bono and the Edge of U2 fame (oh, yeah, they wrote the score. Did I mention that?) composed two new songs and eliminated or rewrote several others. Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa expanded Act 1 of the original script to two acts, creating a play that centered on Spider-Man’s battle with the Green Goblin and Peter Parker’s romance with Mary Jane Watson. (Because before that it DIDN’T focus on those things, and you’re wondering why the hell not. Ask Julie Taymor.) He turned the Arachne character from the play’s primary antagonist into a much smaller supporting role, a spiritual guide of sorts for Peter (echoes stir of the JMS “Totem” storylines back in his run on Amazing Spider-Man), and flat-out eliminated the geek chorus, which was a framing device that could only have been created by someone who is trying really hard to understand superhero comics, but doesn’t.
The end result is just what you’d expect of a one-off Spider-Man musical. Look, you know the bullet points, and the show as currently configured plays the standards: Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson, spider bite, take that Flash Thompson!, wrestling match, Uncle Ben’s dead, Norman Osborn’s crazy, WHOOPS! now he’s the Green Goblin, JJJ labels Spidey a menace, Spider-Man no more, wait no on second thought, girlfriend hanging from a bridge, with great power comes great responsibility, Goblin defeated, final bows. The book borrows heavily from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies (organic webshooters, giant inflatable Bonesaw McGraw), and pulls other bits of inspiration from Ultimate Spider-Man as well as the 616 classic Spidey. Many of these elements, though, have been remixed, so you continuity purists out there aren’t going to be happy. There’s no Harry Osborn; instead scientist Norman resembles Spider-Man 2’s Otto Octavius, straight down to the loving scientist wife and lab partner. The Sinister Six are all Goblin-created mutates, and the roster is comprised of Electro, The Lizard, Kraven the Hunter, Carnage, Swarm, and Swiss Miss (a human Swiss army knife created specifically for the musical), none of whom have anything to do with their comic book counterparts aside from appearance, exaggerated though that appearance is in super-deformed Power Ranger style armor and costumes (it works better than you’d think it would).
The score by Bono and the Edge is what you’d expect in a score by U2: it’s a rock score. It hits its heights in soaring power ballads “The Boy Falls From the Sky” and “Rise Above”, the kinetic energy of a newly-empowered Peter’s “Bouncing Off the Walls” is a blast of first act fun, and the quiet and reflective Mary Jane ballad “If the World Should End” is a lovely calm before the storm. It’s a little more hit-or-miss in other numbers, especially group numbers (Norman Osborn’s “DIY World” and the villains-attack “Sinestereo” in particular are a lot more miss than hit), but it’s a high energy rock score unlike most to be found on Broadway; the true high point may be a pitch-perfect “here comes Spider-Man to save the day!” guitar riff that plays whenever Spidey swings in from the wings or the mezzanine.
Oh, yeah… the swinging. The aerial work. Some say this alone is worth the price of admission. Well… it is. The show incorporates no fewer than 9 stunt Spider-Men all incorporated into the action sequences one at a time to give the appearance that Spider-Man is everywhere at once. Everyone in the audience knows exactly what’s going on, that there’s 9 of these guys swinging and leaping over the stage (using a series of special riggings and pulleys to be carried three or more stories up, by the way), but the effect isn’t ruined. It still works, and it’s amazing. The final battle with the Green Goblin, taking place in the air above the audience, Spidey climbing on the Green Goblin’s back and punching away, is breathtaking; if you sit in the Orchestra fly zone seating you’ll have the opportunity to lose yourself, if but for a moment, in the sight of Spidey and the Goblin soaring through the air and duking it out just feet over your head.
Reeve Carney, who has been with the show since day one, still plays Peter Parker, and he’s only grown more confident in the role; by now he sounds as though he was born to power through a group of pseudo-U2 songs. Currently playing Mary Jane is Rebecca Faulkenberry, no Jennifer Damiano (the role’s originator) but certainly miles beyond Kirsten Dunst and with more than enough vocal chops and flirty girl power sex appeal to pull off MJ. Norman Osborn/the Green Goblin is currently played by Broadway veteran Robert Cuccioli, who originated the role of Jekyll and Hyde on Broadway, and then undoubtedly cringed when he saw David Hasselhoff “playing” the same role on DVD. The Goblin is a scene-stealing role, the deformation of the Ultimate Goblin combined with the cackling insanity of Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and Mr. Cuccioli takes full advantage, chewing scenery left and right as only a psychotic supervillain can do, his performance only marred by an odd Southern affectation in his speech. Michael Mulheren’s J. Jonah Jameson is a loud, gruff bowl of entertainingness, though he’s not quite at J.K. Simmons’ scene stealing levels.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has garnered a reputation as a big, bubbling disaster over the years, and to be fair it has earned a good deal of that reputation. I should also note that, while I loved the show, most everyone I know who has seen it does not share my enthusiasm. But I’ll point out one word from this paragraph’s first sentence: years. Flops don’t run for years. Spider-Man is in its third year. If you check the weekly Broadway box office receipts, you’ll notice a trend, four shows that have swapped amongst each other the four top spots on that list now for the past six months, at least: The Book of Mormon, Wicked, The Lion King, and, you guessed it, Spider-Man. Butts in seats is not the only measure of success, but it is a big one. Turn Off the Dark pulls in almost a million people a year, and averages close to $150 million in box office annually, obscene amounts for a Broadway show.
This in and of itself does not make a piece of art good. Lots of people watch Keeping Up With Honey Boo Boo, or so they tell me, and that show is enough to make me want to give up on the idea of human society (we’ve had a good run.) But this Spider-Man and theatre fan can tell you this: Turn Off the Dark was more than I expected it to be, and as entertaining as any show I’ve seen on Broadway in the past several years. I’d go back tomorrow night, if I could. I may be an army of one, but there are far worse ways for a comic book fan in New York City to spend their time and money.
Look, it’s better than the Daredevil movie, and you OWN the Daredevil movie.
I own the Daredevil Director’s Cut.
But that’s a different column.
Tom Hoefner (@TomHoefnerÂ on Twitter) is a playwright, theatre director, college professor, and would-be novelist living in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. Heee’s baaaaack!
Check out “From the Casefiles of Race and Cookie McCloud”, a blog of super-short stories chronicling the adventures of Race McCloud, Private Eye, and his 15-year old former-secret-agent-in-training niece Cookie: http://raceandcookie.blogspot.com
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