By now, just about everyone knows the long, strange journey Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has taken to its official opening on June 13, 2011. If you don’t, I’m not sure which card to revoke first: your gay card or your geek card. I didn’t arrive in New York in time to see the first incarnation of the production, which closed and lost its director and creator Julie Taymor (The Lion King) before re-imagining itself back on stage in a matter of weeks, under the direction of Philip William McKinley and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Sensational Spider-Man, Marvel Knights 4). I wish I had, though. It might explain some of the disparate elements of the show that feel hastily sewn together, like Peter Parker’s first attempt at a costume.
I never thought it was that strange of an idea to put Spider-Man (or any comics) on stage. Comics present a world that’s larger than life, where emotions, motives and desires are not only on prominent display, but often shouted from the rooftops. (See where I’m going with this?) It doesn’t get any “larger than life” than a musical. The histrionics of comics are the perfect match for a stage and a score. So, all the critics and fanboys who scoffed at the very idea are simply ignorant (or in denial) of just how similar the two genres really are.
So, let me just start by saying that a Spider-Man musical is a good idea. Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and wicked witches have been flying around theaters for years, so why not Spider-Man? The core elements in the Spidey story, namely young Peter’s struggle with his identity as school outcast, family caretaker and misunderstood vigilante provide the strongest moments in the show. The relationships between Peter and his family, Peter and his girl and Peter and his alter ego are what have kept readers engaged for decades. And it’s those relationships that rise above the often misguided excesses all around them.
Peter Parker is a budding science genius and frequent target of school bullies. He lives with his aunt and uncle and harbors an unrequited crush on Mary Jane, the girl next door. During a field trip to Norman Osborn’s genetic engineering lab, Peter is bitten by a genetically enhanced super spider and wakes up with super powers and a whole new set of problems.
Reve Carney plays Peter with the right amount of innocence and angst. He has a beautiful and powerful singing voice, bringing to mind a young Andy Bell, but with more of a punk rock edge. Jennifer Damiano’s Mary Jane is more emotionally mature than Peter, but she makes us believe that a girl like that could and would wait for a guy like him to catch up. Carney and Damiano have real chemistry, and their duets and relationship moments ground the show and make the audience care about what happens to them.
That’s the central core of the show that I would keep and design everything else around it. My main problem with the show is the disjointed and inconsistent tone and production design. The visuals attempt to evoke a comic book setting with pop art representations of props, furniture and even wardrobe. But comic books don’t really look like that. It’s just pop art’s idea of what comic books look like. The show would have been so much better if it had done away with the kitsch and grounded as much of the action in reality as possible. Spider-Man is visually arresting enough. He doesn’t need a kooky painted cardboard camera hanging around his neck to remind people of his comic book origins.
Which brings me to the next, and most prevalent problem with the show: the villains. As grounded as Peter and MJ are, the villains are beyond comprehension. Costumed in over-the-top designs, half the bad guys look like theme park cast members, while the rest look like Halloween costumes from the clearance bin at Spencer’s Gifts. Taymor wowed the world with her interpretation of The Lion King, utilizing puppetry and costumes that suggested members of the animal kingdom. That’s what was really needed here. The likes of Green Goblin, Electro, Kraven, Carnage and the Lizard suffer from too literal of an interpretation. They merely needed the suggestion of their characteristics to make effective villains. The goofy costumes and the campy antics of Patrick Page’s Green Goblin feel like they belong in a different show, most likely a broad pantomime at the nearest theme park.
Similarly, the offices and occupants of The Daily Bugle are all portrayed as straight out of 1930s comics, complete with typewriters, headline paste-ups and vintage clothing. I think they were trying to make a point about the inevitable extinction of newspapers, but it just didn’t make sense to have two distinct time periods occupying the same stage.
As for the music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge, I was very pleasantly surprised. Make no mistake, this is a rock musical, and it tends to use music to create and comment on emotion more than advance the plot or character development. Still, I enjoyed the music and found Carney and Damiano—again—to have the strongest and most effective numbers. While I wasn’t exactly humming the main theme as I left, I definitely wanted to hear the songs again and even bought the soundtrack as soon as I got home.
Of course, the main source of the spectacle (and woes) of the production are the aerial feats performed by a small army of Spider-Men. The aerial design by George Tsypin makes great use of the Foxwoods Theatre’s space, and the cables and safety lines disappear believably enough during the high-flying stunts. Spider-Man is almost always tethered to his web line in the comics anyway, right?
And if I had only one moment in the show to use as defense of the whole enterprise, it would be the moment when Spidey takes flight, soaring above the crowd. It’s the closest any of us will ever come to seeing a man swing from building to building in New York City, and it’s worth the price of admission just to feel that rush of excitement (and envy) as he flies overhead.
If only the show could get one more “reimagining” to tone down the villains and tighten up the cohesion in the production design, it really could be the success that the Spider-Man legacy deserves. As it stands now, the production is at war with itself, an epic battle between a moving and heartfelt story about a young man’s destiny and a campy and soulless sideshow attraction. Alas, it appears to be the one battle that our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man just can’t win.
The production’s troubles and delays will undoubtedly discourage anyone else from attempting a comic-book inspired stage musical anytime soon, which is a shame, really. The very human stories at the center of comics are perfectly capable of transcending the medium and making the most of what live theatre has to offer. The best parts of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark are proof of that.