The Crawlspace’s very own “Spider-Girl”, Stella posted a great review of Spider-Man Turn off the Dark while it was still in previews back in December of last year. However after a blitz of mostly negative reviews amidst a host of news headlines concerning accidents on the set; Julie Taymor the shows director and primary visionary was fired from the show and replaced by Philip William McKinley with the mandate of fixing the show. Comic creator and playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and TV writer Glen Berger were also brought on to do some significant rewrites.
If the reports are to be believed it would seem that Ms. Taymor simply refused to allow changes to the show’s critically panned plot. Ultimately forcing producers to replace her.
Ms. Taymor boxed herself into a corner with the producers in the last few weeks by rebuffing their requests to allow outsiders to make changes to the show. She would not meet with some of them, and she did not act on suggestions for improvements; at one feedback session with the cast, some actors argued for strengthening the central love story between Peter Parker and M. J. Watson, but Ms. Taymor insisted, “It’s there.” The Edge, Bono and the producers also expected that she would make far-reaching changes in the show’s critically panned Act II, but after attending recent performances, they concluded that she lacked the objectivity to ruthlessly reshape the show.
After taking a 3 week hiatus to reinvent itself reopening in previews on May 12th, the show finally opened for real on June 14th in it’s new “Reimagined” or “2.0” format.
*** WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS ***
The Book of Peter
While I never saw the musical in it’s original incarnation, as an avid Spider-Man fan I did follow it very closely. And very little of what I read inspired much hope for it’s quality. Sure the action sounded fantastic, but the story was a mess.
Well I am very happy to report that the production that I saw was far from what the New York Times described as a “muddled fever dream” in reference to the first version. While many of the original scenes remain, they have been reorganized and rewritten to create a far more comprehensive and classical comic book inspired plot. Many if not all of the terrible scenes have been removed entirely, including the “shoe shopping scene”, every scene with the “Geek chorus” and the quite frankly awful sounding original ending with Peter battling Arachne after she reveals the whole first act was an illusion!?
What we are left with is a rather by the numbers Spider-Man versus the Green Goblin plot which takes more than a few cues from the original Sam Raimi directed movie. Also the romance between Peter and MJ has been given far more attention, much to my delight. The final product may be “uninspired” in it’s originality, but it is exactly what most audiences and Spider-Man fans would want from a theatre production of Spider-Man.
I’m not going to break the plot down scene by scene, but if you are interested in comparing the plot synopsis with the one of the original linked above. The shows wikipedia page does a pretty good job. Wikipedia
And while there are some rather strange deviations from the comic and the movie, the plot is thoroughly enjoyable in every sense. We see our hero’s origin told in a wonderfully dramatic synopsis, which while it cuts out the rather important element of Peter failing to stop Uncle Ben’s killer it does do a great job of capturing the origin with much of the same respect to the source material seen in the movie.
The only major deviance from the movie version of the origin is the inclusion of Peter’s “spirit guide” (for want of a better name) Arachne. The scenes with this character, while wonderful and spell binding are also rather jarring and out of place. Remnants of the shows original vision and wonderful in there own right, they offer a pleasant diversion from the standard Spider-Man story, but ultimately they seem incomplete and unnecessary.
And for fans of the comic, the show taking more inspiration from the movies than the comic feels very odd. But as someone who loved the movies it is not really a detriment to the show at all.
Other deviances include Norman being a scientist desperate for funding and ultimately becoming the Green Goblin from genetic tampering based on other species. Which is why the costume is so bizarre, as far as the plot is concerned it isn’t a costume but the result of him being transformed by the process. It has to be said that the Green Goblin costume is rather awful, but it does look much better on stage than in photos. And the performance more than makes up for his goofy look. However I know that most Spider-Man fans would be much happier had he more closely resembled his classic comic book visage.
The Sinister Six are later created by Norman using scientists that worked with him and left when funding dried up, and are set upon the city in an attempt to lure out Spider-Man. While this is a pretty huge change in the origin of these characters, I found it worked great within the construct of a Broadway show. The cast of villains in the Sinister Six is also unusual, we have Carnage, Electro, Kraven the Hunter, the Lizard, Swarm and Swiss Miss.
Carnage’s costume is probably the best and most faithful to the comic, although he is described as being made of blood by the press. Electro looks cool but is not quite the Electro we know and love. Kraven is kinda cool looking, identical to the comic but with a large plastic head. The Lizard is seen in video on large electronic screen at times during the show and looks just like his comic counterpart, however when on stage he is a man with a lizards head an arms coming from his stomache and tail from his back, presumably in mid transformation. The last two come across as more of a joke than attempt at real villains, Swarm bares little resemblance to the character seen in the comics and Swiss Miss is ridiculous but entertaining within the show.
All in all though the Sinister Six scenes are extremely fun, especially when Spidey shows up and starts defeating them.
The final battle at the end of the shows second act is now with Spider-Man versus the Green Goblin (rather than Peter versus Arachne), and is without doubt the most breath taking and wonderful piece of action drama I have ever seen outside of a movie. This is what Spider-Man fans want to see, this is the climax that always should have been at the end of the show.
The romance between Peter and MJ that progresses throughout the show is also rather wonderful. I’m a big fan of Peter and MJ’s romance and I thought it was handled superbly here. I’m not embarrassed to say that at the climax where MJ reveals that she has guessed that Spider-Man is Peter, and he takes of his mask to kiss her; I cried a little.
So I can say without any reservations that while the story offers few if any surprises, it is everything I wanted from a Spider-Man production. I was utterly entertained and delighted to see all these elements come to life on stage before me.
True to any Julie Taymor production, the sets are breath taking. Much effort has been taken to give the show a comic book fell and the sets are at the heart of this. The transformation from one scene to the next is always a treat and each and every set has a wow factor to it. Stunning works of art each and every one of them.
The music is a little difficult for me to review. As an avid Spider-Man fan I followed the show very closely, and heard several of the songs while it was still in early previews. My first exposure to those songs did not really impress me very much. It was not that they were bad, just that they did not grab me at all. While I’m not a big fan of U2 I certainly enjoy them from time to time, but these songs just were not doing it for me. And this is from someone who regularly listens to “Rock Reflection of a Super-Hero”, and sings along without this slightest hint or irony.
However, as soon as the album was made available I snapped it up and started giving it a serious listen. By the third or fourth listen I was completely smitten with almost every track. I went on to listen to the album about fifteen times before actually seeing the show. So while I was utterly enthralled throughout, I do worry that those hearing the songs for the first time might not be. Could be an issue for a musical.
Bono and the Edge might write great songs, and trust me these songs are great. But I don’t think they quite have the knack for writing instantly catchy show tunes. So my advice to anyone interested in seeing the show, treat yourself to the album before hand and give it a few listens to engage with the music.
That said, I found seeing these wonderful songs come to life delightful. The duets between Peter and MJ are an absolute treat, and bring this hopeless Peter & MJ romantic almost to tears on every listen. And while I sometimes found myself skipping “Bouncing off the Walls” when listening to the album, seeing it live changed the whole song for me and I doubt I’ll skip it again. In fact the only song that didn’t work for me was “Bullying by Numbers”, a piece not on the album and sung while Peter is being bullied at school. But even then the routine that went with it was still very enjoyable.
Outstanding, superb, wonderful, breathtaking. I just don’t think there are enough superlatives to describe how I felt about the cast of this production. Jennifer Damiano is a real star, and my goodness does she look like Mary Jane Watson! Patrick Page was one of the best things about the show, his Goblin performance was so fantastic that you immediately forget about the silly costume and are completely invested in him as the Green Goblin. He also provided the comic relief, his scene as the Goblin trying to leave a message on the Daily Bugle’s automated system is a hammy delight.
And funnily enough just like Stella,the performance I saw also featured the alternate Peter Parker; Matthew James Thomas. And I have to agree with Stella, I think that Mr. Thomas is probably better than Reeve Carney in the role. While I have yet to see Reeve perform live, I have seen every TV performance from the show and heard him on the album many times. And I found Matthew to not only have a better sounding voice, but to look and play the role of Peter better too. In fact I think I would go as far to say that MJT (if I may call him that) is probably my favorite live action Peter Parker to date. And as a huge fan of Tobey MaGuire, I can assure you that is saying something.
Matthew plays Peter in such a charmingly vulnerable manner that you can not help but fall in love with him within minutes of his first appearance on stage. I was so taken with his performance that I am now torn, the next time I see the show do I try and see Reeve for comparison or will it spoil it a little if I spend the whole show wishing I was watching Matthew as Peter?
I believe Matthew plays Peter at matinee shows. So not only would I tell you not to worry about missing Reeve’s performance if you do see a matinee; but consider going to one specifically to see Matthew James Thomas perform!
The rest of the cast were excellent too, my other choice for stand out performance would be Matt Caplan as Flash Thompson and assorted roles. And while she get’s only a small amount of stage time in the revised version, I did find T. V. Carpio to be quite spell binding as the unusual Arachne.
Another great performance but little stage time was Isabel Keating as Aunt May. Although she was seen in a few other minor roles too. Michael Mulheren also does a decent job at channeling J. K. Simmons in the J. Jonah Jameson role. Very hard to step in to those shoes.
What can I say? Seeing clips of Spider-Man and the Goblin in action on Youtube does not come close to how incredible it is to see them live. I promise you that you have never seen anything like this live. Forgot that Indiana Jones show at MGM Studios (OK don’t because it’s great, but…) this is the real deal. While the on stage fight scenes are rather tame and lacking any real fight choreography, when Spidey start swinging around the theatre you will be in absolute awe. The cast that play Spider-Man (there is about 8 of them) really do a sublime job of mimicking his comic book motions as he web slings over the audience. Even if everything else was awful, the action alone would be worth the price of admission.
I am lucky enough to know someone who works backstage on the shows props. And he was kind enough to offer me a back stage tour after the show (I know, lucky me uh?). It is really incredible to see the amount of effort that goes on backstage to bring this show to life. The complexity of mechanics for all the sets is very impressive, and the whole back stage crew deserve as much credit as everyone on stage. I have very little doubt that it takes far more to achieve what takes place on stage for Spider-Man that any other show that has ever been on Broadway.
I believe it would be very difficult to call yourself a Spider-Man fan and not find this to be one of the most enjoyable experiences of your life. Combine wonderful theatre and music with your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and you have a smash hit in my opinion.
It seems pretty obvious to me that all those negative reviews that came out upon the shows final opening were the result of hype backlash. So many negative stories about accidents and negative report of the plays plot (before the revision) created an atmosphere of Spidey-schadenfreude, where the the media commentators minds had been set to hate the final product. Almost salivating at the desire to see the show fail, they could not wait to announce that the show was a disaster.
But it is not, not even close. The show is a triumph of entertainment. And while it may not have the admirable pretensions of other plays desire to tackle lofty question of the human condition, it delivers a fantasy roller coaster ride like nothing that has come before it.
Treat yourself and everyone else that enjoys Spider-Man, go see this show!
Overall rating: A-