Oh, Spiderman 3...all is forgiven.
Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, the $65 million behemoth directed by Julie Taymor (The Lion King) with songs by U2's Bono and The Edge, has been in previews on Broadway since last November. Normally, preview performances for a Broadway show last about 2-3 weeks before it officially opens. But as everyone knows by now, Spidey's much-delayed Broadway debut, which is still in previews, has been anything but normal.
Originally scheduled to open over a year ago, the production literally ran out of money and shut down for months until a new investor could be found. Rehearsals and preview performances were plagued by production delays, and even worse, several actors were seriously injured thanks to the show's complicated flying stunts. To make matters worse, despite the fact the show was playing virtually sold out every night, word quickly spread that while the special effects (when they worked) were great, the show itself was a dud. Critics, fed up with ongoing delays, went forward with their reviews back in February, and needless to say, the reviews were brutal.
Well, the powers-that-be have taken action and Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark is set to close down later this month, delaying its opening night for the sixth time while the production undergoes a major overhaul. Director Julie Taymor has been canned, Bono and The Edge have been summoned to write new music, and the choreographer has been replaced.
So is this show really so bad? I saw it Saturday night, and put simply, the answer is...yep, it's terrible.
I left the Foxwoods Theatre convinced of two things: that I don't think Julie Taymor has ever read a Spiderman comic book, and that Bono and The Edge have never seen a musical. The story is a confusing, muddled mess, and the while the rock score was enjoyable (I'm a big U2 fan, so I can't hate on them too much), the lyrics of the songs were virtually incomprehensible.
The biggest mistake of Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark is that instead of choosing from a wealth of Spiderman stories to build a show around, Taymor decided to base the whole thing in Greek mythology, complete with a "Geek Chorus," four comic book geeks who narrate the show to the audience as they create their ultimate Spiderman story. Now, I know geeks. I'm proud to be one myself. Real geeks would have come up with a better Spiderman story than this. The Geek Chorus was reportedly supposed to represent Taymor, Bono, The Edge, and co-writer Glen Berger...which makes me think the show needs an even bigger theater than the Foxwoods to contain all of the egos behind this production.
But in reality, the Geek Chorus is just there as filler to keep the audience distracted (not entertained, because the Geeks were not even remotely entertaining) as the massive sets are changing around behind them. Whenever their scenes are done, they sat on the side of the stage with the same glazed-over expressions as the rest of the audience had for most of the show. You know it's bad when one of the ushers has to start the applause when the audience stayed silent after one of the songs ended.
Now, about those massive sets. Visually, this show is stunning. The way they did the perspective on the buildings, the projection screens...even the flying, which thankfully went off without incident at our performance, was actually really cool. "Bouncing Off The Walls," a song in Act 1 when Peter Parker wakes up with his Spiderman powers and goes running and down the walls of his bedroom and then takes on the bullies at school while Batman-style "BAM!" "WHACK!" "POW!" signs flashed in the background, was a fun scene that I hope survives the upcoming show overhaul. We were sitting in the cheap seats up in the balcony, and Spiderman even managed to land in our section a few times, much to the delight of a little boy sitting in our row who yelled "OH MY GOD! SPIDERMAN!" the first time that happened.
The problem was, the sets and special effects were too much, and far too distracting. I kept thinking of a scene in Monty Python's Spamalot where King Arthur complains that they've gotten lost "in a dark, and very expensive forest." They couldn't just have Peter and Mary Jane's houses, they had to have versions of their entire street folding in and out as they walked on a treadmill track as if they were walking all through Queens, while a miniture subway train kept rolling on and off the stage. Sure, you could definitely see the $65 million up on that stage...you're just left wondering why they needed to blow it on such unnecessary stuff on the set.
Getting back to that muddled mess of a story, at the beginning of Act 1, one of the Geeks suggests bringing in the character of Arachne, a woman who, according to Greek mythology, was transformed into a spider after defeating the goddess Athena at weaving. So while Act 1 loosely follows the story of the first Spiderman film, the Arachne character randomly pops in and out of the story for some reason. Is she Spidey's nemesis? Guardian angel? Who the hell knows. What we do know is that she's there at the expense of Uncle Ben and Aunt May, who are totally underused. Uncle Ben is hit by car instead of shot by a robber and never even tells Peter the "with great power comes great responsibility" line, and by Act 2, Aunt May is mostly reduced to a cameo. Even J. Jonah Jameson isn't given much to do.
Arachne's most puzzling moment comes in Act 2, which is when Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark truly descends into madness. Furiously jealous of Peter/Spidey's relationship with Mary Jane, Arachne plans to attack, but not before sending her army of spider-women to loot Manhattan shoe stores and perform a song dancing in high-heeled shoes.
Seriously. That happened.
So where are the good villians? Well, the Green Goblin is in Act 1. He plays a mean piano, too. I'm not kidding - he plays Rodgers and Hart's "I'll Take Manhattan" on the top of the Chrysler Building in front of a captive Spiderman. We don't know why. He's also dead by the end of Act 1, so we're stuck with Arachne for most of Act 2. Arachne employs the Sinister Six (The Lizard, Kraven, Electro, Carnage, Swarm, and a new character called Swiss Miss) to wreak havoc in Act 2, but they don't do much more than show up on a fashion show-type runway to show off their cool costumes. The Goblin shows up again as well, but in the end we learn that all of it was an illusion by Arachne and none of the villians were ever really there in the first place. At this point we were all wishing we weren't there in the first place either.
Also missing are Spiderman's trademark wisecracks, or any development of Peter Parker as a character. Spidey was played by Matthew James Thomas at our performance, and I thought he had a great voice and could have been a terrific Spiderman with the right material to work with. Unfortunately, Taymor and crew seemed to think that once they got him flying, they didn't need to do anything else with him. Same goes for Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane - great voice, got to repeat a lot of Kirsten Dunst-type lines from the movies, but she didn't have much else to do.
As far as the music...like I said earlier, I'm a big U2 fan, so I did like parts of the score. In fact, I'd love for U2 to grab some of this music back and use it on a future album. The show had some decent songs, like the show's anthem, Rise Above, and Spidey's big eleven o'clock number, The Boy Falls From The Sky is another highlight. But they're rock songs, and instead of moving the story along, they grind it to a halt. Earlier on Saturday, I saw the matinee performance of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Now, that's a 50-year-old musical. But those songs were the ones I was still humming to myself after leaving Spiderman. I couldn't remember how a single song from Spiderman went afterwards without having to look it up.
Before Spiderman started previews last year, 60 Minutes ran a behind-the-scenes look at the troubled production, which you can watch here. Sadly, this show's troubles were only just getting started when the segment aired, but one comment, by producer Michael Cohl stood out for me. Discussing the show's massive budget, he said that "No one wants to see the $25 million Spiderman."
Well...if the $25 million Spiderman had some better songs, a coherent story, and wouldn't leave everyone holding their breath hoping that no one gets hurt every time an actor goes up on the wires, then yeah, I would totally take the $25 million Spiderman over this bloated mess. I felt bad for the entire cast, who was so talented and clearly working their asses off on that stage. They deserve a better show...and so does Spiderman.