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Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Review: "Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark" on Broadway--Throwing some Light on the Subject!
Note: If you haven't seen the "new" Broadway musical, "Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark," and intend too, stop reading NOW. If you don't care, read away, but be warned, there will be spoilers. In fact, I tell you everything!
There are two shows I've seen on Broadway that I can honestly say I hated beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The first was "Starlight Express." My parents were visiting New York in the late 80's and we left during intermission. The second was "Rock of Ages," more recently. The music was good, or at least nostalgic, but the plot was just a clothesline to tie the songs together.
There might be a third if you count that I fell asleep during "Cats."
So, that puts this review into perspective. One: I probably don't like Andrew Lloyd Weber (It's true. His events contain one good song that the whole production hinges on. The rest pure pap.) Two: I like a good story that holds my attention.
During the first act of "Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark," I was 90% sure I'd have a fourth candidate for my all time worst musicals.
I knew we were treading dangerous ground as soon as the show started. The crowd was electric with excitement. Little kids...and a few adults.... were sitting on the edges of their seats. The air crackled.
"Maybe this would be....extraordinary!"
Those hopes were dashed quickly when the curtain opened, to a solo Peter Parker (played by Reeve Carney), who is delivering a speech to an unseen class. Immediately, we are taken into a Greek tragedy out of nowhere, lamenting the pride and fall of a character called Arachne.
Although this scene comes out of nowhere and is shoehorned into the story, making absolutely no sense, and serving no point in the plot (and actually dampening audience anticipation), I will say that the visuals and the staging invention of "The Myth of Arachne," are the only point in the whole show when I see a glimpse of the genius that Julie Taymor showed us in "The Lion King."
I had hopes... for a second.
As the show progressed,however, my first thoughts were. "How much did this show cost? Really!"
As you probably know, it's said to be one of the most expensive productions in Broadway history.
Wherever the millions went, my friends, it did not go into the sets.
This is one of my major disappointments with the show, as real characters are propelled through a series of worse than Toon-Town sets, distracting from any angst or emotion being portrayed, and dumming down the whole experience. Real people sitting at slanted card board cut out tables, with cross -hatching because they want the sets to look like "comic books," does NOT cut it, folks.
The First Big mistake.
The Second: The music.
I admit I'm not the biggest Bono fan, nor The Edge. I am just ambivalent. However, the score of "Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark," is so lousy that it sounds like an over the hill The Edge playing a watered down version of "The Wall." I found myself actually yawing in a few places. (This is NOT good, by the way.)
As a side note, I did not see the original version of this musical by Julie Taymor. But when Taymor was booted, in my opinion, the music should have been booted as well. (Hint to the Producers: It still can be, ya know?)
I think my other major annoyance with Act 1 is in the scene were Viper Execs visit Dr. Osborne to strong arm him into thinking their way regarding funding-- funding that also includes creating a super army.
How many times people, are you going to be unimaginative enough to use goose-stepping soldiers to show "evil intent?" I'm just well.... kind of sick of it. Think of something else, okay?
I know you think it's shorthand. But it's not. It's lazy.
Aside from the inventiveness of the useless Arachne scene, the only other medium high point in Act 1 is during the "Bouncing Off the Walls," segment in which Peter uses his new Spidey powers and gets back at the bullies at school. The use of fake wobbly legs, puppetry, and staging of the fight scenes, is again, meant to be "comic booky", but still at least it's fun to watch.
Sigh. That was Act I.
I thought it couldn't get worse. I was wrong.
Begin Act II.
Oh my GOSH! Again, with the outlandishness that bogs this production. I am trying to find the adequate ways to describe to you my feeling when the Sinister Six (comprised of Carnage, Electro, Kraven the Hunter, The Lizard, Swarm, and inconceivable Swiss Miss) join the newly formed Green Goblin (aka Dr. Osborne).
I know for a fact that I actually groaned. I may have also hit my head with my hand in disbelief.
In Act I, there was the fight scene with a wrestler in which Peter wins a pile of cash with his super powers. Yes, he's meant to be able to blow over his opponent sure, but the wrestler is actually.... a BLOW UP doll. It's campy, but I let it go, you know, at that point....hoping it would get better.
I'll go on record now saying that the costumes for the Sinister Six are the worst costumes I have EVER seen on Broadway. I can only assume they were stolen from the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade: Gigantic heads, blow up body parts, cartoon expressions. The Lizard, which if it had been done with the amazing puppetry we've seen in other productions, would have rocked, instead looked like a cartoon character, stuck in the middle of a dinosaur pool toy.
I could not help but laugh (not in a good way), whenever these abominations were on stage. (And so again, I hooted, when blow up doll costumes appear as Spider-man is fighting a set of three gangsters, walking on Dr. Seuss sets, with gigantic bobble heads. Oh my...)
Note to the Director: Your villains are not that affective if it looks like they can be defeated with the power of a stick pin.
And now a few thoughts on the Green Goblin. Finally. At least the costumes for GG and Spider-man are okay, if not great. Although once again, I'm rather tired of the shorthand of: If you are bad, you must also have horrible dental hygiene. Yes, we know, bad people just don't have time to brush their teeth, as we are reminded with gigantic flashes of the Green Goblin laughing across the stage set. (They do this alot. It's called "filler.")
Dr. Osborne as well as Greeny, however,are played expertly by actor Patrick Page. It's his performance that keeps the second half moving. In fact he becomes the comic relief. The one scene in which he's calling J. Jonah Jameson to leave a message, had the whole room laughing, as did his piano styling on "I'll Take Manhattan." (Again, the fake cartoon piano, was the only thing hurting this scene.)
Problem is, folks, as much as I may have liked the portrayal from time to time, this wasn't the Green Goblin. This was The Joker, instead. Something granted that those that don't know comics probably won't care about. But it did bother us.
The ending itself was anticlimactic, but at least there was an ending.
Then we left.
That's about how it felt. That quick...
I'll try to capsulize, if I can, the problems with this show:
1.) Cartoon sets, that make any high school musical look professional (and I'm insulting high school musicals even by mentioning them in this review). It's hard to get involved in a story, when your characters are working in an unbelievable back drop.
2.) Changes in the Spider-man mythos that were unnecessary, and actually harmful to the plot. For example, in the movie version even (which differs from the comic a bit), Peter wins the wresting match and the 1,000 dollars, only to have the promoter refuse to give him the prize money. When a robber takes the money from the promoter, Peter doesn't stop him, and that robber ends up randomly killing Peter's Uncle Ben. Thus the reason Peter feels so strongly about what he does as Spider-man. He feels he caused his Uncle Ben's death and needs to help others in repentance. In this version, Peter DOES get the money and comes home to find that his Uncle Ben has been killed by some non-connected carjacker. Huh? Why change that strong and wonderful motivation?
In addition, it's established the Osborne's have no son. Why do that? First, why not have them with a son? It's good for conflict with Peter/Spider-man. Secondly, if you are not going to have them with a child, why go to such pains to point it out. It's silly and unnecessary. Sort of like saying "There's supposed to be something here, but there's not, so we are going to over explain it."
3.)Terrible villains. Oh my Gosh! Please lose The Sinister Six costumes, at least, if not ALL the blow up dolls. Gak.
4.) Spider-man not acting like Spider-man. At the quick and somewhat rushed climax of our little piece, Spider-man ties a rope around the Green Goblin's leg that is attached to the (cardboard) grand piano. An act we don't see him do on stage. And the assumption is that somehow Spider-man knew that the Green Goblin was going to decide to throw the piano off the Crystler Building, thus taking himself along for the ride and going "splat" on the pavement below. First, I don't think Spidey would kill the Goblin like this. It's not his character. Second, HOW did he know the GG would throw the piano off the building that far in advance to begin with! At this point, I was pulling some hair out.
All of this being said, believe it or not, I still left the theatre not hating this show 100%. It has barely-- by a hair-- avoided being in my all time worst list of shows I've ever seen.
There ARE a few reasons. The heartfelt performance of Reeve Carney as Peter Parker, the show stealing Green Goblin by Patrick Page, and the aerial stunts by the talented group of stuntmen.
I had balcony seats in Row B, so as to fully see all the action, and it was fun to have Spider-man land on the platform next to us from time to time, as well as sneak through the seats to take off from the same platforms. The kids around us were completely mesmerized. And that was more fun to watch than the show itself.
The wonderful Spider-men were also always staying in character, walking and moving as Spider-man would, and waving at the kids, much to their glee and delight. They were indeed the "friendly neighborhood Spider-man" come to life.
I applaud them.
But, are these few high points enough to make this show a "must see," having had it's last preview night at the performance I attended? I don't think so.
The problem is that "Spider-man: Turn off the Dark," is schizophrenic. It has NO idea what it is? Is it campy? Is it serious? Do we want to look like a comic book? Do we want to look solid and real? And because it doesn't know, it moves from camp to pathos in such a clunky way that the audience doesn't know either.
They just know it's not... right.
It's the same with the Green Goblin.
Although he was really The Joker in actions and word, he becomes the comic relief and almost a friend to the audience. The audience "likes" him. He is the only well-rounded character in the whole piece, going through tragedy and full transformation, establishing empathy as well as that "like" bit with the comic relief.
And if the audience has begun to like your villain, you can NOT kill him off wantonly like they do here, without there being some redemption. And you certainly don't have your hero kill him in a cowardly way.
I'm sorry folks, but that's Storytelling 101.
Because of both of these very important things, and ALL of the above, "Spider-man: Turn off the Dark," is an incomplete and unfulfilled experience.
I understand that this re imagined book of the show was reworked by writers Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, one or both with storytelling experience. I'm wondering what they changed. But what I'm wondering the most, is why didn't they change MORE so that there was a better story?
I could also see nothing of Taymor left at all, from the supposedly disappointing first imagining, except the Arachne song, so I do wish I'd seen both to compare.
Could it have been as bad as this?
I for one was hoping to see at least a hint of the brilliance in "Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark," that I found in "The Lion King."
That my friends, is an eye-popping, soul-touching masterpiece, which takes you through levels of emotion in a few hours, that I know, brings tears, and makes you address places in your heart that we often avoid.
You leave that theatre with a spring in a step, humming the songs you just heard, and with some strange desire to do "something," well... good. You can NOT help but smile. I dare you.
If there was anything like that in the original version of this Spider-man vehicle, they were remiss to lose it.
Not even with another year of reworking, will "Spider-man: Turn off the Dark," ever be THAT. It has about as much substance as it's blow-up villains.
It could have been so much more.
Bottom line: If you have money in your pocket for a Broadway show, go see "The Lion King," while you still can. See it twice.
If you want to see Spider-man, I'd take that $100 plus dollars, and go on the Spider-man 3-D adventure at Universal in Florida instead.
It's a much more fulfilling ride.
By the time in the musical when the giant cardboard Spider-man swings out three stories high to catch a giant cardboard baby supposedly falling from a conflagration warped cardboard house, even while my eyes were rolling back in my head, I stopped to think-- for the sake of the cast and the ticket buyers if nothing else-- that it was a pity that nobody found a way to save this show.
"Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark," is currently playing at the Foxwoods Theatre in Manhattan.