Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (Take 2!)

My second trip to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Spoilers ahoy.

I first saw Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark when the show was still in its (nearly endless) previews, back in December 2010. Now, almost a year later, I returned to Foxwoods Theater to see the finished production. My verdict?
As before, I found the show entertaining and fun, but it wasn’t until the last five minutes or so that I became completely enthralled. Part of this was simply a function of the fact that I’d seen the show already, and so was less caught up in it the second time. Part of it is a function of the fact that those last five minutes kick serious ass, pressing the button labeled “RETURN TO TWELVE YEARS OLD” in my head. (Those who know me may comment here that this particular button gets pushed a lot. To which I say: You’re all doody-heads!)

So, how does the “real” version measure up to the preview version? On the whole, it’s much improved. The ridiculous “Geek Chorus” from the previews is gone entirely, and good riddance to ‘em. The absurd mythological/metafictional Arachne subplot is gone, too, though the character herself remains for one or two numbers, now serving more as a fantasy inspiration for Peter Parker as opposed to an actual force. (Arachne is an obvious and useless appendage in the show now, and could/should have been excised entirely. Her role could have been filled — and would have been better filled! — with, say, a ghostly Ben Parker. But one suspects that having spent who-knows-how-much-money on the Arachne spider rig, the producers were bound and determined to use the damn thing, and to hell with internal logic.)

The wirework and stunts are still spectacular, and the climactic battle with the Green Goblin is great fun, especially as multiple Spideys pop up in the audience at carefully-timed intervals (to make it seem like one Spidey moving quickly), spraying the audience with faux web-fluid. Cool. (No, I didn’t get webbed. Yes, I will be bitter about until my dying day. Thanks for asking.)

Although I was one of those who rose for a standing ovation at the end of the show, it was not until late in the performance that I felt it worthy of such. In yanking out the troublesome elements of the old version (the aforementioned Arachne and Geek Chorus, for the most part), the new showrunners were left with some extra time. And they chose to fill it, basically, by dragging out the first act. As a result, the first hour or so is so slowly paced that you feel as if you’re watching, say, Grease, with the occasional mysterious costumed interloper. It just doesn’t feel like Spider-Man for long stretches of action. It isn’t until Act Two that things really swing (sorry) into high gear, with Spider-Man taking down multiple super-villains, juggling his super-life, girlfriend, family responsibilities, and job all at once. Good, fun stuff — the music is consistently better in Act Two than in Act One and the pacing is miles better. And by the last five minutes — as I said — I was itching to hop to my feet. (There’s especially a moment during the curtain call that made me whoop out loud with delight. During the curtain call.) The show also makes a brilliant decision to have an excuse for Spidey to swing maskless at the very end of the show, allowing the audience to see the expression of joy on Reeve Carney’s face as he web-slings around the theater. Great idea, and it mimics the joy and sense of release the comic book Peter Parker often found in his alter ego.

In all, there was a new playfulness to the character of Spider-Man that I really appreciated, hearkening as it did to the comics’ wise-cracking Webhead. I spotted one Spidey, waiting in the wings for his entrance, toss a jaunty thumbs-up to someone in the audience, as if to say, “Never fear, citizen! Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is here!” I don’t know if that (and moments similar that I noticed) were scripted or if the actors are just being allowed to have some fun. Either way, it’s a nice touch.

So, what’s the upshot? The new showrunners clearly had a difficult task ahead of them: They had to fix the significant flaws in the original version of the show, while still using enough of the props, characters, music, and sets from the original that they didn’t incur ridiculous costs. (As if the whole thing weren’t ridiculously expensive to begin with, right?) Incredibly, they pulled this off…at the expense of some of the show’s energy and drive, especially during the first act. But by the second act, everything clicks and you’ll find yourself having a good time.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is never going to be high art. Not unless they strip it down completely and spend another $65 million redoing it. But it’s not supposed to be high art. It’s the Broadway equivalent of a summer special effects extravaganza, and with that in mind, I think it’s worth seeing.

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