Monday, January 17, 2011

'Lights Out' For 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark'?

On January 8, 2011, I was given the opportunity to attend a preview performance of the Broadway musical, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, featuring a score written by none other than Bono & The Edge of U2 fame (yes, that’s right – I was there the same night as Kevin Jonas and his missus – no, I did not see them). The currently infamous adaptation about the Marvel superhero is flooded with press, some good, a lot of it bad, and most of it just plain confused. I don’t usually write about Broadway shows, other than to spout my undying love for them (or at least, what they used to be), but considering the hype surrounding this show, the score being written by two of arguably pop’s most prominent living songwriters, and one of the swing actors was/is none other than America Olivo, a former member of Soluna (and therefore an important part of my musical life), I figured why not present to those interested a look into the Great White Way’s most expensive (and beleaguered) musical.

Click the cut below for a more exhaustive review of the show. It should go without saying that this contains a heck of a lot of spoilers.
In the vein of full disclosure, I have often stated my disdain for “public fanfare musicals”, shows such as this or the late Shrek which use the time-honored Broadway medium and adapt it to more popular means of entertainment in an obvious attempt to rope in theatergoers (and, let’s be honest, tourists). I suppose it works quite well with the Disney musicals (The Lion King can never be rebuffed as a brilliant piece of work, but Mary Poppins? Not so much.). I suppose you can call my mentality snobby, but considering my first Broadway show was Annie Get Your Gun (and shortly thereafter, Kiss Me Kate) and my favorite show overall being West Side Story, let’s just say I have a thing for the most classic musicals of yore. However, my interest in the show arose due to one of its castings, and when I happened upon (free) tickets through a stroke of luck, I wasn’t about to decline.

I should start off by saying that it was recently confirmed the show Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is being delayed from its official opening date yet again, pushing its actual “opening day” on Broadway to mid-March 2011. The performance that I saw was a mere preview performance. For those of you who do not speak Broadway lingo, when a show is still in its infancy, it often “opens” via previews in a different city, kind of like a series of dress rehearsals in front of an audience (for money). Often scripted dialogue, sets, costumes, songs and even full plot arcs are changed in response to audience enthusiasm, or in terms of what physically works. For most Broadway shows, these previews usually happen in other “theater-friendly” cities, like Los Angeles or San Francisco. However, for Turn Off the Dark, this was simply put not an option, due to the extensive amount of set pieces, rigging and aerial harnesses that needed to be custom fitted for the freshly revamped Foxwoods Theatre (formerly known as the Hilton Theatre – the last show performed there under that moniker was 2008/2009’s Young Frankenstein starring Megan Mullally and Andrea Martin, amongst others, which I also saw). Therefore, despite not being technically “finished”, the show is available for viewing here in the heart of New York City.

From the minute you walk in to the stunning Foxwoods Theatre, you are visually arrested. The stage features an elaborate red backdrop, framed with various “spiderwebs”, a “stage band” of two outfitted guitars on stage right, and a set of aerial harnesses hovering over the audience. Unless you’ve been under a rock and not clued in to theatre news of late, you may have heard how several cast members have bowed out of this production due to injuries, which are often linked to the aerial stunts performed throughout the show. The show’s opening preview back at the end of November, due to issues with the rigging   resulted in running over four hours long. I had heard quite a bit about the aerial stunts, but nothing fills you with incredulity quite like seeing these awesome harnesses just swinging blithely…right over your head. I had choice seats, on the aisle toward stage right, not quite in the orchestra pit but out from underneath the balcony overhang. They were the type of seats most Broadway nerds like myself would kill for, especially in a show like this.

In brief, the show follows the story of a group of kids, affectionately referred to in the program at least as the “Geek Chorus” (get it, Greek Chorus?), who are attempting to write the greatest comic ever. The jokes quickly fall rather flat, and the audience reaction seemed to be rather deadpan. Eventually, we fade into the land of nerdy Peter Parker (Reeve Carney), as he is bullied for being different and harbors an intense love for Mary Jane Watson (the relatively drab Jennifer Damiano – a true waste of talent as Mary Jane is the most two-dimensional character in the show, if you don’t mind the pun). Immediately, you are once again overwhelmed by the visual set pieces, which often play into the “comic”-like character of the Marvel superhero, as many of the pieces are created to look like they are pulled from a drawn comic book itself. Ultimately, we follow as Peter becomes Spidey, and proceeds to save the world. Yadda yadda yadda. That part you were expecting.

The changes in sets are a cue as to why this is officially the most expensive to produce show Broadway has ever seen – they are truly stunning in their functionality. However, I’m quick to state that this is one of those musicals that is all about the eye-candy, as the storyline relies far too much on what we already know about Spider-Man (in my case, not so much), and if you weren’t a huge fan of the comic, or have never seen any of the movies in the film franchise, the plot exposition of the play doesn’t jump through hoops to spell it out for you. I’m not certain whether the show is more faithful to the plot of the comics, or if the first film is, but either way, the script is the biggest deadweight to the production as it truly is a feast for the eyes. As I stated before, its still in the preview stage, so I automatically assumed that lines would be tightened up and the plot holes would be fixed with time.

A huge sub-plot to the show is the inclusion of the character of Arachne (originated by actress Natalie Mendoza, who controversially left the show somewhat recently – the role was temporarily filled in by former Soluna member America Olivo, hence my interest in the show entirely – before she was succeeded by “Across the Universe” actress T.V. Carpio). Arachne is portrayed as a human woman in Ancient Greek times who was considered to be the best weaver that existed. Goddess Athena was so infuriated by her notoriety that she challenged Arachne to a weaving duel…and lost. Now even more furious, Athena destroyed Arachne’s beautiful creation, and depressed, Arachne attempted to kill herself. It was then that Athena apparently decided to have a conscience, and transformed Arachne into the world’s first spider. Peter Parker’s transformation into Spider-Man is then attributed to Arachne, who, was we learn throughout the production, has plans for him to help her wreck her revenge.

I’m hardly a Marvel comics conossieur, so I’m definitely not the one to ask whether or not this sub-plot was or is a part of the actual Spider-Man lore. I can tell you that the entire Arachne subplot was rather poorly executed, as you are never really sure throughout whether she is a good, redeemable and sympathetic character or a dastardly villain, which (spoiler alert), she appears to be in the end.

Much like in the first film, Peter undergoes a lot of stress when first understanding his other sense of self, and is forced to battle with the Green Goblin (Patrick Page), the alter-ego of (mad?) scientist Norman Osbourne, seeking revenge on his co-horts who sold him out to the US government. As I’ve stated before, much of the plot is muddy and confusing, much of which I’m hoping will be sorted out through future edits prior to official opening.

The first act ends with Spidey supposedly defeating the Green Goblin and saving Mary Jane. In all honesty, as the lights came up for intermission, I remember thinking to myself, This show doesn’t deserve the negative press it’s been receiving. Yes, the plot is muddy, but it plays out like a literal feast for the eyes in terms of visual eye candy.

Then, Act II started, which I can basically sum up as to being a lot of build up to a completely unsatisfying and lame conclusion. Suffice to say, I’m seriously hoping that Act II will be the main source of the apparent Spidey overhaul that is requiring the supreme delay of true opening night. It basically follows the Geek Chorus trying to come up with the ultimate super-villain now that the Green Goblin has perished, and because Spidey is Spidey, he defeats every idea. Meanwhile, Arachne and her band of creepy spider-like furies, appear in Peter’s dreams, infiltrating his mind. Peter can’t take the pressure (or the weird dreams), and is tired of letting down Mary Jane, who still has no idea he’s really Spider-Man (no epic upside-down kiss in this production…at least not yet). He triumphantly decides he’s giving up his alter-ego in exchange for a normal life with Mary Jane.

This of course enrages Arachne, who revives every enemy Spider-Man’s ever faced (so…the “Sinister Six” that we saw about 20 minutes ago, as well as the Green Goblin), who begin to take over the City’s power supply, leaving them all in the Dark (Get it? No?). Peter remains holed up in his dark apartment with Mary Jane, and proposes to her, stubbornly refusing to react until he simply can’t sit still anymore. It’s only when he chooses to react that he realizes it was all a fantasy created by Arachne in an attempt to return to his spider-y ways, forcing him choose between eternal life with Arachne and no Mary Jane, or killing Arachne and being with Mary Jane. I think. As I stated, the storyline was entirely too convoluted and clichéd to truly tell.

In the end, I suppose you can guess what happens. This is a superhero family show after all.

There were two truly redeeming moments of Act II that happened on the stage. The first was the introduction of the band of enemies, set to the song “Spider-Man Rising”. Each foe was more visually pleasing than the next, among them a man who shot up actual electric sparks, a cartoonish man who seemed to explode to reveal a huge lizard in its wake, and a masochistic version of a female Tin Man with drillbit arms that rotated. My descriptions can’t do justice for what was shown one after another, it was truly outlandish and felt a bit like something straight of Universal Studios.

The second was the performance of “Think Again”, which features Arachne and her group of minions known as the Furies. As all of the women playing these roles were visually introduced as femme fatale versions of spiders, the pretty dancers were all cavorting about with two extra sets of legs strapped to them in an elaborate dance involving their false legs (which were clad in garter belts and heels, naturally) that was surprisingly tasteful and almost Fosse-esque (yeah, I said it).

All in all however, not much could hide the fact that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’s biggest foe is it’s script writing. Almost all of the jokes fell totally flat (including one goof on U2 themselves during Spidey’s first official bout with Bonesaw McGraw, in which one of the Geek Chorus members shouts “It’s like “Sunday, Bloody Sunday!”" to literally no reception), and even the overwhelming focal points, dance numbers, popcorn costumes or aerial stunts couldn't save the fact that much of the audience was clearly left very bewildered and confused with the storyline. Couple the fact that we don’t really get much time to warm up to this Peter Parker, or a chance to truly hate the Green Goblin or Arachne, so our audience empathy for one side over the other is slim to nill.

Despite the writing, there was one saving grace, and that was the aerial stunts, which remain to be the thing that sets this show apart from any other show on Broadway. When I envision Spider-Man, I picture Tobey McGuire from the films – all fit and flexible. However, even I am not naïve enough to not realize that the Spidey from the film franchise was more often than not computer-generated. So how do you exactly bring that image, of a superhero that can literally fly through the air thanks to spider-web he shoots from his wrist, into actual being in real time in front of a live audience?

Insert the aerial rigging I mentioned before. During several points during the show, a Spider-Man (it should be noted it was often not the actor who portrayed Peter Parker, but one of a series of Spider-Man stunt doubles who were all professional aerialists…or so they proclaimed) latches on to the rigging, and the visible wires are used to create the effect of the web he slings to glide from building to building. Spidey literally flies around above the audiences head, flinging himself from the stage, to the balcony and back again, and at one point during Act I, even has a visceral battle between the Green Goblin literally inches above my own head. During which, that particular Spidey drops down into the aisle inches from where I was sitting before jumping back up into the air to strike the Goblin again.

Given the fact that the show was chased by so many staggering reports of actors injuries due to these stunts, I’m almost positive that the nail-biting on-the-edge-of-my-seat feeling I was feeling that night would have been totally different had I not understood the mentality that actors have literally fallen or gotten seriously injured performing these feats. I’m sure I would have appreciated it more had these instances not happened, as the stunts truly were something to behold. However, given the reports, it did give the stunts a new and more sinister kind of suspense. To speak personally, whenever Spidey or one of his foes would fly out over the audience, my brain (and stomach) repeated two things over and over: 1) Please, don’t fall. 2) Please don’t fall on me.

A sadistic part of me wondered how many people in that audience were there that night with camera phones at the ready just in case something terrible happened. Nothing too out of the ordinary happened during the show I saw, but – at one point, after a large stunt sequence over the audience, one Spider-Man swung back to the stage into the wings of stage left, and hit part of the stage rigging with his arm with a rather audible smack. Given the velocity he was going in that harness, that had to have smarted, if not worse.

As a music critic, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the score, which as I stated before, was rather auspiciously heralded to be the labor of love by U2’s most famous members. However, I have very little to say. Given sound issues, I found it rather difficult to catch most of the lyrics. Several of the pieces were decidedly somber and downtrodden, and virtually all lacked a memorable hook. And as a child in the row behind me stated to his parents following the finale, “The songs were good, I guess, but they didn’t do The Spider-Man Song!” In my own personal opinion, U2 was trying far too hard to be serious in a show that was about one of America’s most celebrated means of escapism – the superhero.

Overall, I hardly believe the show should receive such scathing reviews. It’s easy to put it down, but it’s also important to note how much adversity a show of this magnitude requires. It may be the most expensive show ever produced, but it’s the most expensive for a reason – the outfitting, training and safety for the aerial rigging alone is rather intense, but add to it the range of visual costumes and extensive yet functional set pieces, it’s really no small wonder it cost so much to create and maintain.

The show is currently still in its toddler-stage, and few shows are forced to undergo the scrutiny this one is undergoing simply because most shows don’t preview in New York (and I think its safe to say we have some of the toughest, most cynical critics around). I’m not much of a Spider-Man fan, but had the plot been tighter and the script more dynamic, it would be downright easy to get lost in this incredible visual Candy-Land. This was a tall order to begin with, and given the ingredients needed to make this a success, it’s not exactly a run-of-the-mill stage show.

Everyday, there’s a new press story about the show, often chastising the number of hurdles it is attempting to overcome. I’m hardly downplaying those hurdles – the obstacles are incredibly formidable, and the actors' injuries are no small footnote in the history of this show. With that said, to simply cast the show off as a thoughtless venture would be unfair to those who are attempting to make this show come alive. Did I enjoy the preview performance? The answer to that would be both yes and no. I certainly walked away with a new-found respect for the brave actors associated with it, as so much of the production requires absolute fearlessness. Even still, the problems that are clearly visible should not be ignored, and according to recent reports, they are in the process of being remedied.

Truth be told, while I walked in to the Foxwoods Theatre a biting skeptic, I came out rather optimistic for what the show had the potential to be, in particular for those who enjoy the superhero fandom, and for families looking for a feel-good show that doesn’t require much thought or emotion. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is attempting to bring the thrill to Broadway, and I’m hoping that in time it will be given the chance it deserves. The ball is now in the handler’s court – and as Spider-Man himself says, with great power comes great responsibility.

Too cheesy?

1 comment:

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Want to know more about Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark? Check out this exclusive, behind-the-scenes Mr. Media® Radio-TV interview with actress America Olivo (Bitch Slap, Circle, Friday the 13th), who has been with the musical for seven months as the understudy for Arachne, Aunt May and more!

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