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Spider Sense

2010-12-01

When writing my official ‘take’ on Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark (aka The Spider-Man Musical) it’s hard to know where to begin. I think the most important questions are ‘did you like it?’ and ‘did you have a good time?’

The answers to both are a resounding ‘yes.’ We had a wonderful time at the show, and as both a fan of theatre and as a Spider-man fan I had a great time. If that’s all the detail you need, I’ll add a caveat of ‘it’s not quite ready yet, give it a few months’ and send you on your way. For those of you that want the nitty gritty details, keep on reading. It’s a LONG review.

It took me a couple days to write this, because I could never figure out the proper take. As a casual viewer, it’s very easy to praise; and as a critic, it’s very easy to tear apart. After reading the reviews in the New York Times and the Post I’ve found myself praising it to people I spoke to, just to balance the criticism found in those reviews. The funny thing is, both views are in the right. There’s just so much to the production that you’re almost forced to pick and choose what to focus on. It’s near impossible to capture the experience in a single review without sounding ‘wishy washy’ on something that I’d wager many people are going to feel passionately about.

Time to get down to the nitty gritty. And like the best fairy tales, it’s not pretty to start with. But I promise a happy ending. It’s important to note that this was a preview performance, and after previews, before opening, things change. That’s why they have previews. At the beginning of the performance we were told that stoppages were possible, due to the technical nature of the performance. As promised, there were 4 stoppages during the first act, and only one during the second. Unfortunately, the second act stop was right before the climax, so it hurt almost more than the first four. The stops happened, but I don’t really think that reflects on the quality of the show at all. It made it difficult to judge at times, because I don’t think you’re supposed to get a chance to catch your breath at all during the show – and we had some nice 5 minute breaks to digest things.

So what about the show itself? The truth is, it’s pretty jumbled. Among our group it was unanimously agreed on that you have to have some connection to the characters going in, or it won’t hit you in the same way. Not a lot of time is spent establishing relationships between characters up front. You get one early Peter / MJ scene contrasting their households , but besides that a lot of things you just have to know.

The first act is essentially the first Spider-Man movie, and the second act is a more original ‘Taymor-esque’ storyline. Cramming so much plot into such a small space is difficult, and can at times feel disjointed.

Also, the music just isn’t soaring. The vocal performances, with the exception of Natalie Mendoza’s Arachne, were really hit or miss. It’s a difficult book to sing, and you could tell the actors were struggling. The musicians also felt a bit off, there was a full orchestra pit (oddly located separate from the stage) and a couple of guitarists featured to the side – but they rarely hit that feeling of exhilaration that’s supposed to come with a rock and roll score.  If you’ve got two feature guitarists, they really need to rock out at some point, and these guys never did.

That timidity, with a couple of exceptions, carried through the actors performances as well. There was never that feeling of abandon that can pull you in to a staged performance. In my opinion, the best performers pull you so far in that you forget you’re watching someone else, and feel like you’re just watching that character on stage. Peter and MJ particularly never came close. The exceptions to this rule were again Mendoza’s Arachne and Patrick Page’s Green Goblin.  Between the two of them they were able to capture everything from sublime seduction to raw madness, and really everything in between.  If these two hadn’t been so on point, the show may have been lost.

The sense of the timid and nerves even carried through many of the stunt performances. Never fully capturing the swagger of Spider-Man.  But I think it’s important to note that the past 2 months of this production have been extremely troubled, and unlike a film set, you only get one take and no rest. These performers have to be exhausted. Trying just to get through this show.

I can hear you now.  “Joe, weak music, weak performances, scattered script, that adds up to a terrible musical.”

And you’re right. Technically. But the show itself is an incredible spectacle, and you can’t tell me that you went to see Spider-Man the musical for a dose of Shakespeare. You want to know if a man can fly.

And he can.

Taymor’s signature is all over Spider-Man, and every scene has a distinct visual flare that separates it from the others. A mad mix of pop-art, comic books, African influence, and theatre language all comes together to show you things that you’ve never seen and literally can’t forget. The first major piece of the show is the origin of Arachne, where singing women swinging on fabric, wind up weaving a tapestry all over the stage while Arachne herself hovers above them changing into a spider as 6 extra legs come out of her back. And that’s just the beginning. When Spider-Man first steps up as a hero, there’s a sequence of him doing various ‘heroic’ deeds. But the set turns the black and white of newsprint, and the gangsters he takes out (including Hammerhead, hilarious) are all wearing Ditko and Romita style masks turning them into cartoons come to life. And believe it or not, the first act is the weaker of the two visually. Every scene moves seamlessly into another, and the entire visual feel changes with it. Buildings change perspective as Spider-Man battles his foes on the sides of buildings. And in the second act, Manhattan is sacked by the Sinister Six in a combination of live action and video the likes of which I’ve never seen. The Goblin talks to us directly while being projected on giant buildings, and his presence fills the theatre.

But the absolute best is the flight. Understand that there is not ‘one or two’ flying gags in this show. It’s near constant. The queen of flight is the half-spider Arachne, who comes down from the ceiling or the back of the house, and twists and turns all over her web.  Her ‘flight’ comes to a head in one of my favorite sequences: Peter is asleep in bed, and she drops in delicately to hover over him. Then, as she sings, he levitates out of bed to meet her. It’s seductive, and while he’s prone and asleep, the two of them rotate a full 360 degrees, spinning as she sings before she lays him down back in to bed. No, I have no idea how they did it, but the wires seemed to melt away and my jaw was on the floor.

To wrap it up, I have two brief stories. The first was, to me, the embodiment of what the Spider-Man musical should be able to offer. When Spider-man starts his fight with the Green Goblin at the end of act one, the Goblin takes to the air above the heads of everyone in the theatre. Spider-Man swings up to the balcony, lands there, and then starts to swing around the theatre, trying to catch up to the goblin. He landed again, almost 6 feet away from me in the balcony, and then jumped on to the goblin’s back. He rode the goblin all around the air, before jumping off all the way down to the floor of the theatre. When he made this jump, everyone in the balcony rose out of their seat and there was an audible gasp as people were afraid he was going to fall. But he landed on the ground, and just like Spider-man, swung back up in pursuit of the Goblin. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a visceral reaction to a ‘stunt’ before.

And finally. The first act was really the roughest. The script bounces all over the place, the music was weak, the performers were nervous, and we had to stop four times for at least 5 minutes apiece for technical delays. I’d imagine at this point the critics were scribbling furiously in their notepads trying to rhyme ‘musical’ with ‘debacle.’ When the lights came up for intermission, after a particularly bad technical break, there was a little boy sitting in front of us. I think he was about 10. He looked at the adult he was with, and she gave him her cell phone so that he could call his mom and tell her about the most amazing thing he had ever seen.  He talked about the sets and he talked about the fights and he talked about how close he was to Spider-man.

If I could I’d go back soon, just to check on the progress of the show. To see what changes and what gets cut.  But I know for a fact that by the end of next year Ashley and I will go and see the finished product – because it felt so good to be that close to Spider-Man

I'm Late

2010-12-01

Not pregnant.

This is Amy and my crunch week so we're both doing roughly 12 hour days so I have very little time to actually post anything (and when I do, it's late like it is tonight) but I just wanted to say how great that review was.  I know I'm supposed to be all bromance here and supportive but that was great.  Now I want to see the musical and I had no interest whatsoever.  Him fighting Goblin alone makes it work the ticket it sounds.