Theater Review: Spider-Man – Turn off the Dark

 

 
If I were a schadenfreude kind of guy, it would have been dee-lish-us to skewer Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. This new musical (in previews until March 15) is pretty much a catalog of everything wrong with 21st century media: hype, lowest common denominator (how many times can you flog a comic book, for crying out loud?), over-amplified, unmemorable music and special effects-laden. And it’s been known to cause grievous injury to its actors. 

But I’m not a schadenfreude kind of guy. And even if I were, it would be unfair to skewer. The critics may have bashed this show with reviews epic in their vitriol, but on the night I saw it last week, the nearly sold-out audience loved it. Whatever its considerable shortcomings, to use a phrase that I’m sure will also become overhyped, this muscular show had us in its web. 

If Turn off the Dark were an actual spider, its body would be supported by two legs Cirque du Soleil, two legs rock concert, two legs Stan Lee’s comic books and one leg son et lumiere, as tilting billboard-size electric signs create off-kilter Manhattan skyscrapers and undulating spider webs. The last leg belongs to the audience, whose awe is required for it all to work. 

Narrated by an odd and probably unnecessary “geek chorus” (that’s what the program calls them) of teens speaking in verse, the basics are familiar. Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) is a nerdy, bullied high schooler with a crush on the girl next door, Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano). But after a spider bite, he literally begins bouncing off his bedroom walls (which, in director Julie Taymor’s staging, bounce back like an old-fashioned pinball machine). Soon he’s bashing bad guys and whooshing and whirring on wires over the audience and up to the Foxwoods Theater’s second balcony. 

The first act’s plot is a gibberish of mean high school kids, mad scientists and manic army generals. I’m going to be charitable and attribute that to a sound system that still needs the kinks worked out. But never mind – when Peter and his nemesis the Green Goblin duel it out directly overhead, it’s thrilling.

It’s also viscerally scary. Given the serious injuries sustained by some of its actors, I haven’t felt this worried for my own safety at the theater since Michael Cerveris as Sweeney Todd looked me in the eye and beckoned toward his barber chair. 

The second act goes off in a completely different direction. Gone are the high-flying acrobatics, and in its place a bizarre love triangle between Peter, Mary Jane and the queen of all spiders, Arachne of Greek mythological fame – she and her furies dance in eight high heels each.

If you’re expecting a tidy musical theater package with great songs and an emotional whallop, you’ll hate Spider-Man with venom. The Sound of Music, this ain’t. But Spider-Man makes sense for what it is, more like Hair was to its day: in-your-face production design, music and staging tell their own kind of story. 

One big difference: Hair’s music was poetry, whereas Spider-Man’s narrates the story (another thing I hate about modern musicals). Bono and the Edge (of U2) wrote the music and are clearly not musical theater writers, though some of the ballads are hauntingly pretty. Even Julie Taymor’s vaulted staging and costumes paled by comparison to her ground-breaking Lion King – maybe it’s just that all the high tech gadgetry made Spider-Man seem less of a revelation. 

In the end, though, Turn off the Dark succeeded where it mattered, in the eyes of the audience. After the show, everyone around me was beaming. 

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A final note: I would not recommend this show for kids under 10, no matter how big their Spidey infatuation. There is some awfully scary imagery.

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