On Stage: “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”

Yes.  It’s true.  I saw it.

Last Tuesday, co-worker Chris and I were treated with complimentary tickets to Broadway’s most infamous production, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.  For those unfamiliar with the fabled history of the project, Spider-Man swung on to Broadway last fall without the benefit of an out-of-town try-out, buoyed by its celebrity creative team (director Julie Taymor and musicians Bono and The Edge of legendary rock band U2) and an heretofore unheard of $65 million budget.  It was slated to open in time for Christmas.  What happened instead was a series of creative conflicts, unbelievably bad word-of-mouth from preview audiences, and multiple accidents that hurt the show’s actors as well as its reputation.  Opening night was repeatedly delayed.  Finally, New York theater critics decided to uniformly break one of the cardinal rules of theatrical journalism–reviewing a show before opening–and gleefully reported to their readers that what was playing in the Foxwoods Theater on 42nd Street was so awful that it almost had to be seen to be believed.  Taymor was fired and the show shuttered its doors, at the cost of $1.3 million per week, to go back to the drawing board.  It re-opened mere weeks ago, billing itself as “newly re-imagined”.  So it was that I took in Spider-Man 2.0.  And was it, in fact, as bad as you’ve heard?

Have I seen more disappointing shows?  Certainly.  But have I seen worse shows?  No.  Simply no.  Spider-Man: Turn of the Dark will now (and forever, God willing) hold the distinction of being the worst Broadway show I have ever seen.

Where exactly shall I begin?  The soundest structural piece in this condemnable, slanting crack house of a musical is actually the plot, which sticks close to the origin story of Peter Parker and Spider-Man as told in Stan Lee’s famous comic books…with one large, intrusive exception.  Ms. Taymor put her own spin on the tale (awful pun intended) by linking Peter’s journey to that of Arachne, the seamstress of Greek mythology who is transformed into the world’s first spider by the goddess Athena.  Functioning as something of a guardian angel, Arachne (played by the permanently airborne T.V. Carpio), accomplishes only one thing: derailing the progression of Peter’s story.  It would have probably saved the creative team unnecessary stress and spending had Arachne been thrown out along with Taymor herself.  Instead, we’re forced to endure no fewer than three of her wailing, whining Enya-esque interruptions.

Let me be clear to specify that while the plot may not be terrible, the book–that is, the dialogue and scene structure that is used to bring life to and advance that plot–is laughably amateur.  On paper, this would read like fan fiction written by a high schooler with a mild learning disability.  As performed by the cast, these pages, better suited for mopping up one’s own hindquarters after a particularly diarrhetic dump, are done no extra favors.  None of the actors have a presence of their own or any chemistry with each other.  They also, by and large, lack that crucial component that most working Broadway actors seem to have: visible talent.

As for the songs, they fall into two categories.   Half of them all sound the same, reminiscent of pieces of U2’s later, lesser catalog of music.  The other half all sound like “Where the Streets Have No Name”.  None of them could ever hope to be stuck in your head days later, particularly not when performed by a cast as weakly voiced as this one.  Reeve Carney, the young man playing Peter Parker (and who I am sure was born with a far less teen soap opera-friendly moniker than his current one), seems to have won the role because out of all the aspiring twinks with stars in their eyes, he was the one who did the most convincing Bono impression.  But the rasping voice of middle-aged Bono sounds totally wrong coming out of an awkward high schooler.  It sounds even worse when that voice barely reaches past the eighth row of the orchestra.  Peter’s climactic moment of self-realization was less of a triumph and more of a shitty American Idol audition.  Jennifer Damiano, a bland and unassuming actress tasked with playing the vivacious and ambitious Mary Jane, is equally lackluster with her vocals.  You just might not notice it as much because she doesn’t get as many.

Going the extra mile in trying to single-handedly sculpt this staggering, shapeless pile of dog shit into  something approaching tolerable entertainment is Patrick Page as Dr. Norman Osborn.  With Doc Brown’s hair and Foghorn Leghorn’s voice, Page chews every inch of the production’s suffocating scenery as the good doctor gone bad.  Once transformed into the villainous Green Goblin (by means of unintentionally side-splitting set pieces, props, and stage direction), Page slums it with the same campy, self-satirizing shtick he employed as another emerald-skinned ne’er-do-well: the title character in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, a production that actually could have imparted volumes of wisdom to Spider-Man‘s creative team on how to properly adapt a beloved if flimsy cartoon.

But my biggest gripe with Spider-Man is not the awful writing, the embarrassing vocals, or the groan-inducing performances.  It’s with the design.  I assume that the bulk of that $65 million budget went towards the intense aerial choreography; and yes, the web-slinging, mid-air action sequences are impressive.  But if I wanted to see that shit, I’d go to Universal Studios, for fuck’s sake.  This is Broadway, damn it, and once Peter Parker puts his pajama-clad feet back on the ground, there is no ignoring the fact that he’s standing in front of a set that looks like it was made out of cardboard, on a stage crowded with props and pieces that are infuriating in their cheapness.  Peter’s opponent in his first fight is a surprisingly immobile, nine foot tall, inflatable WWF action figure.   Dr. Osborn’s physical transformation is rendered by a faceless, pinwheeling Ken doll strung through with blinking Christmas lights.  And I don’t even know that I can explain the giant two-dimensional baby cut-out that fell from the proscenium.

This is to say nothing of the costumes, which seem to have been gathered from innumerable Broadway productions of decades past.  If I were deaf–well, primarily, I would have been spared hearing this awful score–but if I were deaf, I would have no visual cue as to when this story takes place, because the costume designs are all over the place.  Peter’s classmates at the fictional and lazily named Midtown High are dressed like dancers and fly girls from In Living Color, from their flat-top hair down to their parachute pants.  The staff at Dr. Osborn’s laboratory would fit right in to a Mystery Science Theater worthy Cold War science fiction film, with their genderless silver tunics.  The offices of newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson are staffed by secretaries at typewriters–motherfucking typewriters–who peer down at their keypads over cat-eye glasses, beehive bouffants carefully balanced on their heads.  What the fuck?

I’ve already expended too much time reliving this theatrical nightmare.  I can’t imagine there’s any more to say.  Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a cheap, careless, amateur abortion of a musical that, if there were any justice in this world, would bring the era of the adapted musical to an immediate, permanent end.

You, sir, should be squashed.

~ T

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