Fair warning: I’m not a theater critic, nor am I intimately knowledgeable about musical theater in general. If you’re expecting me to properly use words like “book” and “spike” and “scrim,” you’re fat outta luck, buck-o.
With three friends in tow (one comic book geek, one fellow author, one non-comic book person), I went to a preview showing of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark over the weekend.
You might think I’d be predisposed to like it. You’d be wrong. For one thing, there is a particular gland in the fanboy anatomy that secretes panic hormones any time someone proposes translating a comic book superhero into another medium. For another — and I realize this is both heresy and high treason — I’m not all that big a Spider-Man fan. I dig ol’ Webhead, but he’s not in my Top Ten Superheroes. Not even Top Twenty, to be honest.
However, one thing I’ve always felt is that both comic books and musicals can get away with presenting a sort of hyper-stylized version of reality. Translating a comic book into a musical at first seems risible, but the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. So I went into the show with an open mind, ready to receive whatever was offered. Of course, I had been following the production’s early difficulties online, including special effects that fizzled, harnesses that suspended actors above the audience for interminable delays, and the ever-popular Shattered Wrists. I admit that a part of me expected some sort of disaster in the offing, possibly involving broken bones, blood spatter, and screams.
I’m happy to report, though, that with the exception of one minor glitch (that I noticed, at least), Spider-Man: Turn Off the Darkunfurled with nary a wrinkle, and I enjoyed it immensely. The music occasionally rose to excellent, but was never less than good. (I think the problem with having the guys from U2 score your musical is this: The stuff that’s supposed to sound like U2 kicks ass. The rest of it sounds like U2 trying not to be U2.) The pacing was decent (considering the thing runs almost three hours), and in general the whole performance resonated as professional and — most important of all — a hell of a lot of fun. The set design was immaculate and quirky, as you’d expect from Julie Taymor — through a distorted, two-dimensional aesthetic, it managed to evoke and pay appropriate (though not slavish) homage to the character’s comic book origins, while still looking like no other Spidey environment past or present.
And the stunts?
The first time you see some of the on-stage wirework, you think, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.”
Then — in a well-choreographed moment — Spider-Man swings swiftly though a mock Manhattan skyline, moving with dizzying speed (thanks to the existence of multiple Spider-Man stuntmen). And you think, “That’s even cooler.”
And then Spidey web-slings out over the audience, totally demolishing the fourth wall, swinging up into the balcony, from house right to house left, all over the place. It’s amazing and thrilling, and the crowd exploded into applause. I think deep down, we were all expecting it not to work. As soon as Spidey took that running jump out into the audience, we all expected the harness to catch or the lines to tangle or something. And when it didn’t, you could just feel the audience let go of that anxiety and instead wallow in the sheer childlike joy of watching Spider-Man swinging overhead, just as though we’d all suddenly been transported into the Marvel Universe.
Or that’s how I felt, at least.
I don’t want to give the impression that the show is high art of any sort. I don’t believe it is. It is, instead, a rollicking three hours of entertainment. Lots of action and bombast, as it should be. The story itself is ripped nearly wholesale from the first two Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man movies, almost shamelessly so. However, there is a major element of the story that’s new, and it puzzled me quite a bit.
In short, Taymor made the extremely odd choice to have the narrative revolve around an intertwining set of metafictional subplots, one involving a quartet of young would-be comic book creators, the other involving Arachne of Greek myth. Spider-Man is a fairly versatile character, but I think he’s best suited to stories based at least mostly in a grounded reality. The character doesn’t really benefit from a post-modernist approach — he is exactly what he appears to be. So the post-modernist interpretation of the character and his mythos felt tacked on and slightly pretentious, as though Taymor looked at the character’s history and decided that it was time for a “real artist” to interpret Spidey. I’m not saying that was her motivation — I’m just saying it feels that way.
Oddly absent from the production are Spider-Man’s trademark heat-of-battle quips. Perhaps musical stings are supposed to substitute for the Webhead’s traditional barbs and jabs at his foes, but I missed hearing him mock his enemies even as he webs them up and leaves them for the cops.
What was the consensus of my three companions? The other comic book geek loved it. The fellow author and the non-comic book person both are big musical theater buffs, so they approached it differently and were basically split on it. One found it a pleasant bit of fluff, while the other found it overblown and simplistic.
In my opinion, for all its odd choices and faults, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was a great way to spend an evening. In fact, I wouldn’t mind going back when the show officially opens, just to see what, if anything, is changed in the interim.