Before Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark even held its first preview performance last November, it had the notorious distinction of being one of the most troubled productions ever to hit the Great White Way. The $65 million-plus show had been languishing in development since 2002 and, after a number of delays, had lost two of its biggest stars, Evan Rachel Wood and the Tony Award winning Alan Cumming (who were set to play Mary Jane Watson and the Green Goblin, respectively). Things got worse, though, as soon as the play opened to the public; critics savaged the material, jokes about the production became an unending supply of grist for the late night comedy mill, and, worst of all, multiple performers ended up in the hospital following horrible on-stage injuries.
Yet, as cliché tells us, the show must go on! Except this time, it didn’t. Production of the show –which, it should be noted, was breaking Broadway box office gross records at the time– halted in March when the visionary creator and director of the play, Julie Taymor, was unceremoniously booted from the project after she resisted making wholesale changes to the show that the producers were internally describing “Plan X.” As The Edge, who co-wrote the music and songs with his U2 bandmate Bono, told the New York Times today, “When Plan X was presented, [Taymor] said: ‘That could never be achieved in a three-week period. You’d need months to do that, and it probably won’t work anyway for X, Y, and Z reasons.’ At that moment, when that was her response, the producers felt that whatever Julie would do with a hiatus was more of a polishing job than a top-to-bottom rethink of the show.” Even Bono admitted that “the first time I loved the play was two-and-a-half weeks ago.”
Why do we bring all this up? Well, after Spidey was benched back in April while the show underwent heavy top-to-bottom reconstruction, the revamped Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark finally opened at the Foxwoods Theater tonight (and the official soundtrack, featuring new songs from Bono and The Edge, also hit shelves today; it’s currently sitting at #12 on iTunes Top Albums chart). Luckily for us, we were invited to a sneak preview of the retooled extravaganza last week, and you know what?
IT WAS VERY EXCITING!
Now, it’s important to note that no one has ever accused us of having a snobby palate when it comes to the capital-T Theat-ahhhh. We don’t pride ourselves on having memorized the monologues of Mamet, nor do we feel that dramatic theater begins and ends with Tennessee Williams. We do, however, recognize good entertainment when we see it, and Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark contains some of the most thrilling moments we have seen on Broadway in a long, long time.
First, we have to begin with a shout out to the now deposed Julie Taymor. What she apparently lacked in her ability to adhere to basic storytelling principles, she more than made up for with her creative vision of the show. Despite the fact that she was forcibly removed from the project, rarely a moment during the two-plus hour event goes by without viewers being reminded of her. Everything about this production bears her signature creative stamp, from the fantastic costume design to the stunningly realized forced perspective set pieces and design.
Early reviews hammered the show for being a convoluted mess, story-wise, but this version we saw last week and that’s opening tonight is fairly straightforward and tells a story as old as time: Boy meets girl, boy gets bit by radioactive spider and gains superhuman abilities, boy battles genetically altered mutant baddie, boy gets girl. Comic book purists may find themselves offended that a few key elements of the Spider-Man origin story have either been altered or conveniently forgotten (like, for example, acknowledging that the reason that Peter Parker decided to become Spider-Man in the first place was to avenge his Uncle Ben’s death), but unless you’re a true Comic Con snob, it won’t matter in the slightest. Like a number of well-regarded Broadway musicals, the dialogue in this work simply serves to set-up the musical numbers, some of which we feel perfectly comfortable in describing as so exhilarating that the hairs on the back of your neck will stand at attention.
The main selling point here, of course, is not the story. Nor is it the music, although it must be said that Bono and The Edge did a pretty good job at fusing their trademark widescreen sound with the hallmarks of musical theater. Admittedly, a few of the numbers fall flat and sound like watered down U2 —not even famed superproducer Steve Lillywhite can breathe life into a stillborn number like “No More,” and whoever made the decision to feature the boring “If The World Should End” at the Tonys this weekend needs their head examined— but on standout numbers like “Boy Falls From The Sky” (which is a kissing cousin of the band’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”) and the electro-disco stomper that is the Green Goblin’s Act II opening theme, “A Freak Like Me Needs Company,” their music soars. Fans of The Joshua Tree will also be pleased to know that the show’s theme music, “NY Debut,” contains echoes of the U2 classic “In God’s Country” in it; additionally, there’s a scene that takes place in a dance club while everyone is getting down to “Vertigo.” (Also, we would be remiss if we didn’t note that star Reeve Carney has a powerful rockstar voice and movie star charisma in his title role as Peter Parker/Spider-Man.)
However, the real star of the show is, not surprisingly, the aerial stuntwork. Since we did not see the show during its initial run, we’re not entirely clear on how the story was reworked, but one thing we’re sure of is that every time Spider-Man or the Green Goblin takes flight and soars 30 feet (or more) above the crowd, your heart will pound and pulse will race. The speed and skill with which these performers whip around the expanses of the Foxwoods Theater is extraordinary and will surely delight any audience member not named Michael Riedel.
Now, that isn’t to say that all of the critics will be pleased by this new incarnation of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. Savaging a play like this has become almost bloodsport for theater nerds, with outlets like Reuters slamming it as “a bloated monster with bad music,” and The Wrap admonishing it for being “hobbled by an apparent lack of faith in its comic-book roots.” However, with the possible exception of the universally-beloved The Book Of Mormon, theatergoers be hard-pressed to find a show on Broadway these days, let alone your friendly neighborhood, that will make their Spidey senses tingle more than Spider-Man.
EXCLUSIVE BONUS CONTENT!
At the preview we attended last week, both Bono and The Edge made an appearance before the show and spoke to a small group that mostly consisted of fortysomething record executive types (and us). They spoke for nearly ten minutes about the challenges they encountered during the creation process, as well as how proud they are of the now completed (?) work. Our apologies for the shaky iPhone footage, but their appearance caught us a bit off-guard. Enjoy!
[Photo Credits: Getty Images]