Monday, January 10, 2011

'Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark' Reviewed or "Turn it off! Turn it off! TURN IT OFF! *sobs*"

As was the case with my parents' last visit to my New York abode, my father decided to spring for a Broadway show when they came to town two weeks ago. This time around, on Christmas Day 2010, he opted to secure tickets to a preview performance of the already infamous Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. For those of you who don't have subscriptions to Playbill (or you know, read the Internet) Spider-Man is currently on track to being the most expensive show ever to (dis)grace the Great White Way, with costs rivaling those of a summer blockbuster. More than that, technical problems and a shocking number of near-death experiences on the part of the cast  have delayed the production by over a year. Yes, I saw that show.

As you may or may not have been noticed, I am a lifelong Spider-Fan (I self-identify with that term). Spider-Man was, depending on the sources you consult, my first favorite superhero (largely varying on whether or not one counts Jun Fukuda-era Godzilla as a "superhero"). Spider-Man helped inspire my love of science fiction and served as a moral compass on my impressionable youthful psyche. My love of the character continues to the present day, being nurtured by the (first two entries of the) recent film series and a slavish devotion to the comics.

In addition, I was a theater kid in high school. I loved the spring musical, even if my particular vocal talents had yet to develop and I was usually relegated to non-singing roles (my greatest part played was the Constable in Fiddler on the Roof). My stage years nurtured in me a healthy appreciation for showtunes and admiration for the talents and perofrmances of live theater.

So, I basically had to see this show.
The meeting of comic books and Broadway seemed to be the crucible of my wildly divergent obsessions.  The best way to describe the experience to an outsider is the effect of introducing a new significant other to one's childhood best friend: one hopes that the two will get along and become friends in their own right; indeed, the survival of both relationships hinges upon the outcome of the encounter.

Well, the nearest I can figure is that at their first meeting Spider-Man called Broadway "pretentious" and Broadway went on a tangent about how Spider-Man was holding me back because he still lived at home and didn't have a job. In other words, an unmitigated disaster.

Where to begin? I suppose I should start simple and just point out that the story is astounding in its ability to make be ridiculous in the worst way possible. The first act roughly follows the plot of the first film: Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man, fights the Green Goblin, saves Mary Jane, derp.

I can find little to criticize about the basic plot of Act One: like Sam Raimi's 2002 film, it does a fine job of boiling down the disparate Spider-Mythos elements of the origin, Green Goblin, and Mary Jane (all separated by years in the comics continuity) and making a very satisfying story. Director Julie Taymor and her confederates were wise to blatantly rip off the movie in their adaptation of the character.

But, and I say this not as a comic fanboy but as a human being with an appreciation for stories that are good and make sense, the show suffers greatly when it veers from the established story in an effort to either make things more original or theatrical, if that was indeed the intention. Consider, the death of Uncle Ben, the formative event in Spider-Man's origin. Originally, Ben was gunned down by a thief Peter let escape in an act of petty arrogance. Now however, Ben is run over by a car. By the logic of this play, Spider-Man should defend the helpless from crime, but from dangerous automotive behavior.

Norman Osborn is also given a wife who dies in his cataclysmic, Goblinifying experiment (just like Doc Ock's wife in Spider-Man 2, how original!) and a Foghorn Leghorn twang, as if the actor was doing an impression of Willem Dafoe not from Spider-Man but from Daybreakers ("I felt like a piece of fried chicken!"), but that's all neither here nor there. Seriously, let's not dwell on it.

But Weeping Jesus on the Cross, this first act is nothing compared to the second. Good Lord is it bad. For some reason, the requisite story of Spidey versus the Green Goblin is not enough to sustain a Broadway musical, Taymor and company had to go off on a strange excursion into the territory of Greek mythology. Apparently, Arachne (yes, that one) has fallen in love with Peter Parker or something and for this reason causes a planet-wide blackout (shutting down the World Wide Web, GET IT?) to make him fall for her or something. She also assembles the Sinister Six (listed in order of ascending absurdity, and all played by big Julie Taymor puppets: Electro, Kraven the Hunter, the Lizard, Carnage (?), Swarm (??!!), and an original insult named Swiss Miss) to bring him out of his Spider-Man No More phase (you know, just like the second movie).

Or does she? Apparently this was all illusion. I'm not sure. Seriously, they're still doing re-writes of this mess because no one, not even the lifelong comic book nerds like me can make sense of it. It's like someone pulled an all-nighter studying for a test on Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, drank a Four Loko, passed out, woke up fifteen minutes before the exam started, and the script for this show is the contents of their Blue Book.

Speaking of nerds, in spite of all the blasphemies against the canon and good taste, one of the worst offenses of Turn Off The Dark is "The Geek Chorus", a quartet of Hot Topic-dressed comic book enthusiasts who narrate the story. Get it? "Geek" rhymes with "Greek"! For some reason, despite being the subject of a record-breaking trilogy of blockbusters, more than a half-century of pop culture prominence, and now the biggest Broadway show in history, superheroes are still exclusively the domain of "geeks". Now please, pay a hundred dollars to watch them.

And yet, despite all the violence the show can attempt against Spider-Man, it does excel in its most controversial aspect: the stunts. Oh my God, the stuntwork is incredible. Spider-Man and the Green Goblin swing and fly over the audience (really close too, I'm sure if anyone 6'7" or over sees this they'll be kicked in the head), battle in the aisles, jump from the balcony, and generally rock your socks off.

As Spider-Man swung over my head, I was actually transported back to my childhood. When I saw him, make a Spider-Man pose on stage, I teared up. When he leaped from the balcony to fight the bad guys, I had to fight back yelling "Go, Spidey, GO!" There he was, my hero. I had seen him in comics, seen him in movies, but now he was right in front of me in the flesh for the first time. It was like that tagline for Christopher Reeve's Superman movie: "You'll Believe A Man Can Fly".

I believed. I believed in it like nothing I've ever believed in before.

When the curtain call started, the dozen or so Spider-Men stunt team came out first to take their bow. They received a standing ovation, complete with hoots, hollers, and cheers. When the cast, even the lead actor playing Peter Parker came out, the applause was polite and muted. I think everyone in the house agreed with me: Spider-Man doesn't sing shitty U2 songs, he does whatever a spider can.