Monday, June 20, 2011

Stuck in a Web You Can't Get Out Of

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
With Reeve Carney, Jennifer Damiano, T.V. Carpio, Patrick Page
Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge
Original direction by Julie Taymor; creative consultant: Philip Wm. McKinley
Choreography and aerial choreography by Daniel Ezralow
Previews began November 28, 2010; opened June 14, 2011
Foxwoods Theater, 213 West 42nd Street

Late in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the alternately stultifying and electrifying new musical, the nasty Green Goblin (played with irrepressible glee by Patrick Page) sits at a piano awaiting his showdown with the web-spinning superhero and begins singing “I’ll Take Manhattan,” a crazed send-up of Rodgers and Hart’s classic song.

The Green Goblin’s take on this pop standard is significant for two reasons. First, it’s one of the few times that this schizophrenic show, which bounces between seriously stupid psychology and serious comic-strip silliness, has a genuinely twisted sense of humor about itself (earlier, the Goblin makes mention of the show’s wildly inflated budget). Secondly, it reminds us that Bono and the Edge, whose songwriting credentials were long ago cemented by U2’s plethora of hits, have a long way to go before they’ll compose a Broadway score that can stand on its own, let alone be mentioned in the same breath as Rodgers and Hart (or even Elton John).

For a show that cost tens of millions and has so much baggage attached to it, Spider-Man at least flows, has a coherent if flimsy plot and some showstopping moments thanks to the talented stuntmen flying around the Foxwoods Theater. Nine stunt Spider-Men take bows at the curtain call, after these superhero surrogates finish flying, spinning upside down, leap-frogging and somersaulting all over the stage, trying to make a middling musical more exciting.

It works at times, in a Cirque de Soleil kind of way, and when George Tsypin’s set design--which, for the most part, comprises sliding panels--suddenly gives us a God’s eye view of the Chrysler building for the big finale, it’s apparent where some of the money went. But fired director Julie Taymor’s original concept overexplained the origin of Spiderman’s powers by introducing the eight-legged goddess Arachne, who now only appears in two numbers prodding Peter Parker to his destiny, “Behold and Wonder” and “Turn Off the Dark,” which are the show’s most eye-catching, as well as the most obvious of Taymor’s own creation.

That some of Taymor’s confused mysticism remains in a pared-down version cramps the show’s style severely: the first act begins very slowly, and the audience doesn’t even see some good old- fashioned flying--why else are we all here?--until just before intermission. (Although the number “Bouncing Off the Walls“ introduces us to Peter’s new powers with a taste of what is to come.)

If even more streamlining was done--by jettisoning the subplots with Peter’s uncle and aunt and girlfriend Mary Jane’s father, especially--and there was more playing up of the comic-book aspects of the story, which don’t really kick in until the Green Goblin gets going in Act II, then Spider-Man might be a less bumpy rollercoaster ride.

The clunky pacing, particularly in how the show often stops dead between songs, is another liability, while the real charms of leading man Reeve Carney and leading lady Jennifer Damiano (who should, if there’s any justice, become the diva of our musical stage for the next 20 years) are never fully exploited. Bono and the Edge’s mainly dirge-like score, which contains only one memorable tune (“Rise Above,” which sounds like a Joshua Tree outtake), seems to cry uncle when we hear tongue-in-cheek snippets of U2 hits “Beautiful Day” and “Vertigo.”

Neither the unsafe disaster it was nor a successful reclamation project, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark ends up as a forgettable musical but a memorable circus act.

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