The first iteration of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which started previews last November, became a national punchline thanks to its constant cast injuries, budget problems and an incoherent plot. But everyone wanted to witness the train wreck, or at least read lots of accounts by people who did. It’s a strange pity, then, that the show’s reboot, which officially opens tonight, is clearly just enough of an improvement to lose its tragic glory.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark 2.0, with a new director, updated music by Bono and the Edge, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s cleaned-up script, and improved safety standards, is a cohesive, familiar story with few surprises and several minutes of truly engrossing acrobatics. In the original production, former director Julie Taymor added several layers of myth and abstraction to the classic Spider-Man story – but audiences found it so disjointed and incomprehensible that the new version is massaged down to the well-known origin story: high school nerd is bitten by spider, gets superpowers, loses uncle, gets girl, fights crime, learns that with great power comes great responsibility. It’s coherent, and safe, and with a few exceptions surrounding the Green Goblin’s character arc, is nothing new.
The music by Bono and the Edge – which the rockers have clearly put a lot of energy into – is mostly theatrical U2-light with obvious lyrics (as Reeve Carney’s Peter Parker is explaining his new photography career to Jennifer Damiano’s Mary Jane Watson, he sings “Picture this…” to begin a song called, well, “Picture This”). There are a few stand-out numbers, including the menacing, strutty “Pull the Trigger” sung by scientist Norman Osborn and a crew of shady executives persuading him to accept their funding, as well as “A Freak Like Me,” Osborn’s campy, Gaga-esque coming out as the villain the Green Goblin. The latter tune was a new addition to the revised version of the show, designed to showcase Osborn/Goblin actor Patrick Page, who is the production’s consistent scene-stealer.
There are also a few questionable musical moments. The show’s third song is “Bullying By Numbers,” during which Flash Thompson and Peter’s other high school adversaries kick the snot out of him, gleefully crooning, “Pull his hair! Rip his clothes! Burst his nose!” as Midtown High’s female population cheers on enthusiastically. It’s difficult to watch, not for any raw violence (it’s Broadway, after all), but for the suggestion of a playful soundtrack to the country’s recent bullying-related tragedies. But you know, it gets better – you could get bitten by a genetically mutated spider and wake up with superpowers.
Speaking of, a note for the Marvel Comics continuity-minded who are thinking, “Don’t you mean radioactive spider?”: Many story elements of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark more closely mirror the three Sam Raimi-directed movies than the comic books. If the words “organic web shooters” make you seethe, then be forewarned.
It is chuckle-worthy when Flash drives Mary Jane home blasting “New Years Day” in his fancy car. U2, get it? It’s less hilarious when “Vertigo” is playing in the teenagers’ dance club. It’s downright infuriating when the Green Goblin, trying to reach Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson on the phone, is forced to sit through “Beautiful Day” as hold music. Yes, right. U2 again. Clever.
The show has a few curious aesthetic transitions – the high school students’ Rent-era “urban” color coordination makes way for “Pigs in Space”-style silver spaceman mad scientist coats in Norman Osborn’s lab. Suddenly, at the Daily Bugle, all the reporters are in old-timey fedoras, surrounded by a typing pool of bubble-headed girls in cat’s eye glasses. This embrace of classic theatrical tropes is clearly deliberate, but feels too easy, and isn’t done slyly enough to be very funny.
Still, there are plenty of breathtaking moments, beginning with the opening scene in which Peter gives a class presentation on the myth of the spider goddess Arachne, played by T.V. Carpio in a role that was reduced by at least half in the new production. As Peter narrates the story of Arachne’s legendary weaving skills, six actresses hang across the stage on massive gold ribbon swings, swaying up and downstage as horizontal ribbons fall, creating a striking human loom. During the climactic fight scene atop the Chrysler Building, the set is built from a roof’s-eye perspective, with a hypnotic view straight down the skyscraper’s side to the cab-lined street far below (though the taxis are driving on the left side of the street – eh, details).
As for Spider-Man’s high-flying acrobatics through the audience – well, they’re thrilling, and fun, and despite everyone’s palpable fear of wire-snapping catastrophe, there aren’t nearly enough. The swinging was such a high point that it supported an idea that this whole thing should have been a Cirque du Soleil show.
The thing with a show like Spider-Man is that some of the eye-rollingest moments have magical potential, thanks to an audience full of kids. As Peter explains to Mary Jane that his Spider-Man responsibilities will often take him away, he reassures her, “Every time you look up, I’m gonna be there.” My gag gesture was at the ready, until the nine-ish year-old boy behind me breathlessly uttered, “Yup, he is.” Faithful wonder 1, cynicism 0.
But still, for the grown-up snarkers among us, the new Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a little too blandly and competently whipped into shape to be the unforgettable hot mess we’ve collectively embraced. Shortly after Norman Osborn’s transformation, the Green Goblin wink-nudgingly refers to himself as a “65 million dollar circus tragedy – well more like 75 million.” Man, if only.