Few Broadway shows come laden with as much baggage as Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark: years in the making and one of the most technically complex productions ever mounted, it’s eaten up $75 million on its way to opening at the Foxwoods Theatre after more preview performances than any other show in history and multiple injuries to the cast. More seriously for its artistic prospects, director Julie Taymor went overboard after critics broke convention to review preview shows and universally slated it. A radically (and hastily) retooled version finally opened two weeks ago.
The end result wears its history fairly close to the surface. Even if its painful birth had not been gleefully documented along the way, the unwieldiness of the show makes it obvious that it’s the product of conflicting impulses which have been jammed together to make an awkwardly compromised show.
The plot as it now stands is a fairly straight-forward Spider-Man origin story: geeky kid gets bitten by super-spider and acquires its proportionate abilities and decides to fight crime after the death of his beloved uncle. He loves aspiring Broadway actress Mary-Jane Watson. Norman Osborn, brilliant scientist turned certifiable loon, is his antagonist in his own mutated form as the Green Goblin. It’s no coincidence that it sounds more like a collection of bullet-points than a plot; there’s very little in the way of connective tissue in this story, either in terms of narrative or character. It feels like a rote ticking-off of iconic moments of the established Spider-Man mythos which don’t really cohere into an emotional journey. Jennifer Damiano’s Mary-Jane is particularly ill-served in this respect. She’s introduced in one of the better songs, No More, where we’re told about her abusive home-life and her longing for something kinder, but this is never touched upon again and she’s soon reduced to the role of adoring, frustrated girlfriend to be used as motivation for both hero and villain.
The only noticeable piece of invention is the character of Arachne, filched from myth to become a spiritual symbol of spider-hood (or something). A Taymor innovation, she was apparently a co-lead in the original production and drew the focus of much of the criticism. The solution which has been cooked up is not a happy one. Presumably unwilling to lose her expensive design or several songs, she pops up occasionally as…a motif? A dream? A vision? Your guess is as good as mine but she adds nothing to proceedings except for being part of an attractively gentle aerial ballet sequence.
With little substance to offer in the way of plot or character, the show falls back on its aesthetic and production values and the results are a very mixed bag. The design of the show is a bewildering mess. There’s some invention on display in the sets, which play amusingly with perspective, but it generally looks and feels a little bare and, surprisingly, cheap while the costuming and make-up is totally inconsistent. Peter and Mary-Jane are restrained and realist while other characters and environments are massively stylised pop-art caricatures. Norman Osborn’s lab looks like a 1950s science-fiction set, complete with assistants in Baco-foil suits, while J Jonah Jameson is stuffed into a comically oversize suit with a giant bouffant wig. He refers to the internet, but is backed up with an all-female chorus of a 1950s typing pool complete with manual typewriters. During an heroic montage of Spider-Man’s early exploits – one of the first times the show actually comes to life – the villains are played with grotesque giant cartoon head masks (making it seem slightly as though New York is under siege from an army of Frank Sidebottom fans) but this conceit comes from nowhere and is never seen again.
The music, by Bono and The Edge, is for the most part murky and unmemorable and isn’t helped by the fact that distorted amplification makes it very hard to hear any lyrics most of the time. The lack of a coherent identity for the score is a problem; the reprise of the best song, Rise Above, is the only time it feels like anything other than a completely disparate collection of mostly bad songs.
One undoubted triumph is in the much-discussed aerial sequences; performers fly around the theatre, through and above the audience, with dazzling speed and grace (and with no noticeable glitches on the night I saw it) and the result is genuinely thrilling. These moments are mostly confined to the second half, which consequently has much more verve than the rather boring first act, but it unfortunately becomes an exercise in sitting impatiently through another dull song or toothless dramatic beat while waiting for someone to take to the sky again.
The show’s other high spot is Patrick Page’s performance as Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin. Even under ludicrous costuming in both identities he manages to break through the wall of nervous indifference which seems to surround the rest of the cast to establish a strong connection with the audience and sells his every moment with gusto. His Act Two opener, A Freak Like Me (Needs Company), is a highpoint of the production. In a show which badly lacks its own identity – it’s a mish-mash of rock, circus and drama stealing aesthetic cues variously from comics, cartoons and films – he injects a dose of pure musical theatre and brings the endeavour gloriously to life on its own terms for moments which are sadly too brief. He fleetingly suggests a success which might have been, but this farrago feels like it’s wasted a huge amount of effort and ideas, assembled without genuine creative purpose and thrown on stage to die.