Note: Please keep in mind that not only is 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' only in previews, but it's also scheduled to undergo some major changes in the coming weeks. This in no way should be considered a review of the final product; this article is meant to provide a sense of where the production currently stands.
'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' is a spectacle. The show has been in the works for quite a while, with readings first being held back in 2007. Tons of delays soon follows (from casting to injuries to an exploding budget), but it pursevered and, finally, announced an opening night of December 21st, 2010. That was then moved to January 2011, and, just recently, to February 2011. According to The New York Times, lead producers decided to push back the opening yet again to "provide more time for the creators to stage a new final number, make further rewrites to the dialogue and consider adding and cutting scenes and perhaps inserting new music from the composers."
Well, regardless of those alterations to come, previews are still underway. And regardless of the show's tumultuous history, the atmosphere in the Foxwoods Theaters is as enthusiastic and optimistic as ever. You can practically feel it in your bones the second you walk through the door that this isn't going to be just any old Broadway show. The production doesn't just have a merchandise stand, it boasts a whole in-house store filled with everything from clothing to coffee mugs. Then there's the bar packed with Spidey-themed drinks, like the Spider Bite and Secret Crush. This isn't a musical, it's an amusement park.
After stocking up on souvenirs and Spidey booze, it's time to take a seat in the packed house. Of course the curtain is decorated with an image of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, as well as a helpless Mary Jane Watson falling from the sky while the Green Goblin lurks in a corner. Within a few minutes of the show's opening, two guitars take their positions on the left side of the stage and gear up for the first number.
Note: This post will include spoilers so read at your own risk.
'Turn Off the Dark' isn't exactly the story of Spider-Man from the comics or the movies. The first characters we meet are called "The Geek Chorus," a group used to introduce the audience to the character Arachne as well as our hero. From there it's the story we know and love; Peter Parker is a nerdy high school kid with a major crush on MJ who happens to get bit by a genetically altered spider and winds up with superhuman abilities. He takes his new self out for a spin and battles Bonesaw McGraw for a cash prize after which his Uncle Ben is killed. It isn't until Arachne steps in and provides Peter with the Spider-Man costume that he's able to overcome his grief and take to the skies, web slinging his way around the city and flying high right over the audience's heads. In this version, the spider that bites Peter is actually from the lab of Norman Osborn. When Osborn suspects someone's stolen his work, he's pressured into taking his research to the next step, ultimately sacrificing himself and becoming the Green Goblin.
The plot in the first act gives us exactly what we want, the origin story that's endlessly entertaining. The basic premise is there and conveyed rather effectively. The whole back-story on Arachne can be a little hard to follow, but otherwise, whether you're familiar with the tale or not the details are quite clear and the show totally engaging.
The major problems begin in the second act. Whereas in the first portion of the show we basically have Peter, MJ and the Green Goblin, the second act introduces us to a whole bunch of villains – the Sinister Six. Visually, the addition is fantastic, but in terms of the story, the entire show just turns into one big, confusing, rushed mess. The climax comes and goes so quickly, it lacks any punch and is basically meaningless.
Peter Parker is by far the most engaging character of the entire production, and that's exactly how it should be. Unfortunately Reeve Carney was absent at this preview, but his understudy, Matthew James Thomas, is absolutely fantastic. Not only does he look the part, but his voice is astounding. On top of that, his performance overall is quite convincing.
Jennifer Damiano makes for a fine Mary Jane Watson, but the role itself could really use a little more fleshing out. As it stands, the character is really just a one-dimensional version of Peter's gal. Damiano is a great performer with a beautiful voice, so it couldn't hurt to give her a little more attention in the story. Norman Osborn runs into a similar problem, but the shoddy second act is really to blame for that one. The character is built up so well in the beginning that it's a shame to have him practically fade away entirely after intermission. Patrick Page's transition from Osborn to the Goblin is so good, it's chilling.
As for the minor roles, we've got quite a few of them. First up are the aforementioned geeks. The actors in these roles are quite talented, but it's hard to say the group has any purpose. Their only function is to comment on the events unfolding, and considering we can see that for ourselves, what's the point? The show's runtime is a little on the long side, so the first step to tightening it up could be the removal of this foursome.
Arachne has issues as well, but like Norman Osborn, it's really due to the second act. She's an interesting character that goes through quite a transition, but it's basically a giant leap from one end of the spectrum to the other; she's practically two different characters.
A few other familiar faces to mention are Aunt May, Uncle Ben and Jonah Jameson. Uncle Ben makes a swift exit as expected, but Aunt May's presence is surprisingly nonexistent after losing her husband. As for Jameson, Michael Mulheren appears to just be following J.K. Simmons' lead and it works.
The Effects and Stunts
This is why you go to see 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.' Whereas most of the other elements are mediocre at best, the set design, action and costumes will absolutely blow you away. From the moment the show begins, you get a taste of the visuals to come. The entire middle section of the stage rises revealing Mary Jane dangling from a bridge. From there we get just about everything from acrobatic dance routines to high-flying action and so much more.
The very first time Spider-Man leaps off the stage and out into the audience it's mesmerizing. Regardless of age, your jaw will drop. This happens quite a bit throughout the production, but the spectacle never ceases to amaze. Cirque du Soleil alum Jacque Pacquin's touch is certainly present through the variety of aerial dances and acrobatic feats. Another vital element contributing to the spectacle is the set design. Gigantic panes are twisting and turning revealing different views of the city, there are stage-spanning bridges and moving walls allowing Peter to bounce around his room as he pleases. Just about everything moves and is beautifully designed, making the set as mesmerizing as the action.
Just as appealing are the costumes. When Julie Taymor first revealed the designs, the strangely elaborate outfits were just plain old weird. Well, apparently Taymor and costume designer Eiko Ishioka really know what they're doing because in the context of the show, they're downright stunning. In fact, the costume design itself almost justifies the inclusion of the Sinister Six. They may not be woven into the story properly, but seeing these characters in action during the number "Sinistereo" is unbelievably entertaining.
That brings us to the show's biggest issue, the music. With Bono and The Edge in charge of music and lyrics, you'd expect this to be one of the highlights of the production. Sadly, the songs were its least memorable part. Most of the lyrics are practically indecipherable and even if you can tell what the characters are singing about, it doesn't quite make sense.
Even worse? The songs aren't catchy in the least. In fact, I don't think I can hum one tune. Just about ever number lacks a chorus and is far too wordy. There's nothing to latch onto or tap your foot to. This is certainly one CD you won't want to purchase after the performance.
Basically what we have here is a work in progress. 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' has all the potential in the world thanks to that massive budget, talented performers and Taymor's unique vision, but it certainly needs those extra few weeks to pull it all together. There were a couple of glitches during the show, which was expected considering this is still a preview performance, but beyond that it's the story and the music that really need work. The visuals can only take you so far.
Will you go see 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' when it opens?