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The problematic Broadway musical Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark is back after what is being called its month long “re-imagining.” The newly re-scripted and re-scored show is celebrating its second round of previews beginning on May 12th at the Foxwood Theater in Manhattan, where its previous preview six months ago made the show seem destined for failure.

Original Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark PosterOn November 14, 2010, an audience of 2,000 people attended that first preview, anxious to see the musical that was already ten months behind schedule. The first act was filled with pauses due to technical problems, two of which left lead actor Reeve Carney, who plays Peter Parker, and one of the actors playing Spider-man (there are nine stuntmen playing the super hero), dangling above the audience. After a thirty-four minute intermission, the second act got underway. However, it too featured its fair share of stops and malfunctions.

The original Director and Co-Author Julie Taymor, known for her work with The Lion King, was fired in March. The show’s composers, Bono and The Edge from the rock group U2, added new songs to their original score, and “script-doctors” Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Glen Berger (oddly, Taymor’s original writing partner) said they hope the new plot will be “a whole new exciting ride.” 

The Edge, Bono, and Julie TaymorHopefully that “ride” won’t end as badly as it did for actor Christopher Tierney at a performance last winter. At the December  20, 2010 show, Tierney, one of the stuntmen playing Spider-man, had the rope attached to his harness snap dropping him 30 feet into the orchestra pit. The young actor suffered a fractured skull and shoulder blade, as well as four broken ribs and three broken vertebrae.

Tierney was not the only one injured. Actress Natalie Mendoza, originally playing the lead role of Arachne, left the show after suffering a concussion from being hit on the head with equipment in the wings of the stage. Two other stunt actors suffered injuries during flight sequences. 

To get the idea of what the original show was like, read this unattributed review I found online, written by an audience member who attended the show on 1/27/11. He wrote, “I haaaaaaated it. so much is so very wrong. The music is boring. Only two songs really sounded U2-ish. The rest just sounded so generic. Could have been written by anybody who is a mediocre musician. The story is a disaster. There are so many loopholes and so many times I was like ‘What?!’ For some reason there is a song and dance number about wearing stiletto shoes?? There’s an army scene??? They introduce characters that come out of nowhere and then never mentioned again. There is sooooo much to cut and rewrite.The actors do a good job with what they’re given but honestly, the plot makes no sense, the dialogue makes no sense. The costumes, set and flying are all cool and different but they do not save this horrible show. Do NOT spend your money on this show. I’m serious.”

Having already cost $65-70 million dollars on the production (depending on which magazine you are reading), the producers decided to attempt to recoup their likely losses by spending another $5 million in an effort to revamp the show. This makes it the most expensive Broadway production in history, as well as the one with the longest preview period (the musical will have played an estimated 180 preview performances by its opening).

The Edge, Bono, and Philip McKinley

Among the changes that were made was firing the story’s co-creator and director Julie Taymor, hiring new director Philip McKinley, replacing all the injured actors with new ones, including Jennifer Damiano, who is now playing Mary Jane Watson. In addition, Bono and The Edge wrote some new songs, five special effect stunts were removed, as was the darker, more sinister quality of the show. The latter has been replaced with a more family friendly version. Finally the characters were revamped; for example, Arachne became less fierce, while the four-person “Geek Chorus” in the original version was eliminated entirely.

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Spider-man was definitely not on my mind when I found myself standing in front of the Foxwood Theatre, one minute after arriving in NYC. It happened when the jovial driver of the Golden Touch Bus, the shuttle from the airport, decided to detour from his assigned route in order to drop me off at the 7th Avenue Subway, instead of Port Authority. I think he felt pity for me, a small woman dragging a large suitcase through Manhattan’s busy streets. 

As an avid New York Times subscriber, I was very aware of the many odd occurrences that plagued Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark. And surprise, there was the marquee, right next to the subway station, and amazingly, the box office was open for previews yet again! So what’s $140 to me anyway? I thought (This from the girl who takes the bus instead of a taxi from the airport). I plunked down my American Express card in exchange for a front-row seat in what was called the “Flying Circle” (meaning mezzanine to most of us). The ticket seller was very adamant that I sit there and not in the orchestra, which costs the same amount. “You did the right thing,” he said as he handed me my ticket, winking at me as I departed.

Spider-man flying overheadTwo days later I was back for the Saturday matinee, with high hopes for a great experience.

The curtain rose, and the oh-so-familiar characters from the comic books to the silver screen made their appearance one by one. First came Arachne (T.V.Carpio), lowered from the ceiling, followed by the rest of the gang, Uncle Ben, Aunt May, Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano),

Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Patrick Page) and of course Peter Parker/Spiderman played by Reeve Carney. I was excited!

But not for long.  The play had a lot of things going for it. The sets were extraordinary, with their comic book stylings, and the fun of the projected, neon-colored onomatopoeias Zonk! Crunch! Pow! Bamm!  that appeared during the fight scenes. The costumes were equally amazing especially those belonging to the Bee Man, the Green Hornet and the Sinister Six. The video projections dazzled, while the mid-air fight scenes between Spider-man and the Green Hornet were very entertaining, including a moment when Spidey landed on a platform about two feet from my seat. But aside from all that, the rest of show was sadly unexceptional.

Spiderman with MoneyBagsThe music was more than adequate, but with Bono and The Edge at the helm, I expected greatness. The score was not awesome in the way that great theatrical musical scores can be. Think The King and I or Les Miserables. It was clear to me that writing pop songs and performing them at a rock ‘n roll show doesn’t really prepare you to write musical theatre. Also disappointing was my discovery after-the-fact that Reeve Carney’s contract doesn’t include performing matinees, so instead I had been watching Matthew James Thomas, the Peter Parker/Spider-man understudy perform the part. Not the same thing, I am sure.

I might add, if I never have to hear “With great power comes great responsibility”, or “Never confuse knowledge with wisdom” or  “Helping people doesn’t sell newspapers” spoken again, that will be OK with me.

It seems, from what I’ve read that the darker, original Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark might actually have been more intriguing to me than the “family-friendly” version I saw.

I could list many more things that might have been fixed to improve this show, but in the end, is it possible to fix something that’s really, really, really, really broken? 

FYI: According to the May 24th issue of The New York Times, there has been a dramatic change of fortune for“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” The play took in $1.26 million for its first full week of preview performances since returning from a three-and-a-half week overhaul. (It grossed $809,941 for five performances the previous week.) That $1.26 million is in the ballpark of the “Spider-Man” grosses before the hiatus, and is believed to be enough to cover the show’s weekly running costs, which have never been made public. The show’s producers overhauled “Spider-Man” in hopes of making it more commercial and selling more tickets, given its $70 million capitalization; the maximum possible weekly gross for “Spider-Man” is $1.97 million.The official opening of the show is set for June 14th, 2011.

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 123 - September 9935
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