Our ‘Spider-Man’ Entanglements

Given Julie Taymor‘s appearances at the Theatre Communications Group conference, Engine28 is going bicoastal, with impressions from some of us who’ve spent time with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, both 1.0 and 2.0.


Spidey 1.0. Everyone needs an editor. I walked away from the theater feeling disoriented – the show was so disjointed, so unfocused. I was left to wonder how the disparate parts coalesced in Julie Taymor’s mind. Plot points didn’t make sense. An elaborate fight scene ended with a giant, cardboard-like cutout of Our Hero descending from the fly space (set piece ex machina). In other sequences, videos stood in for live performance. A highlight, but for the wrong reasons: Arachne’s spider henchwomen did their big dance number with eight stiletto-tipped legs (two real, six prosthetic – talk about a kickline), clever design that overwhelmed decent choreography. Yet I admired the talented cast who acted/danced/sung their brains out to fill the stage with heart and give the show a soul. It’s not their fault they didn’t succeed.

Spidey 2.0. Mercifully, large chunks of tangential storyline were excised in order to streamline the show, but because the transitions in their place were such clunky chunks of expository scripting, I couldn’t help but groan. In other words, the tumors were removed, but the patient was left with disfiguring scars. The self-referential, self-deprecating jokes added to the script seemed cruel to all those involved with the production – cheap “in” jokes that got cheaper laughs. However, the Green Goblin continued to rule – his role expanded, Patrick Page triumphed as a super villain with real charisma, who can croon as well as curse. The night still belonged to Spidey himself; as he swung through the theater, entire sections of pre-teen girls erupted into screams, cheering when he sealed the deal with Mary Jane. As I exited the theater, I followed behind a gaggle of 12 year-old-girls and overheard one whimper, “I loved that so much I’m totally going to cry.” And then she did.


For most shows, I subscribe to the belief that there’s no such thing as bad press — but too much press can set a show up for disappointment. What play, movie, or TV series could ever live up to the din of pop-culture musings that Spider-Man had to endure? After endless speculation and ruthless mockery, Spider-Man’s official coming-out party neither thrills in excellence or disaster — it simmers in mediocrity.

After a shockingly confusing first version, here’s what works in this retooled musical. New York’s superhero in disguise, Peter Parker, and his loyal girlfriend Mary Jane are well developed and likeable. We see their childhood friendship grow into a sweet, G-rated romance, and their moody, slightly emo duets (composed by U2’s Bono and the Edge) land well in the ear canal (without soaring).

Reeve Carney as Peter has an attractive rocker voice that he’s able to sustain through the two-and-a-half-hour runtime. His mumbling delivery, however, trods a dull line. Jennifer Damiano, who added layer upon layer to Next to Normal’s angsty, overlooked teenage daughter, becomes a bit one-dimensional as Mary Jane. But who shows up at Spider-Man for the character development? The flying and aerial stunts are indeed jaw-dropping and endlessly entertaining. The high-zooming movements, particularly the speedy flights of Spider-Men over the heads of the audience members, are nothing short of amazing.

Here’s what doesn’t work. Although the first version did not make sense, the creators of Spider-Man 2.0 have removed all the crazypants from the production. What’s left is only mildly interesting. I never expected to use the word “safe” in regards to Turn Off the Dark, but Spider-Man plays it just that way. For this gargantuan investment,  safe is the most dangerous way to be.


I saw Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark version 1.0 at the end of March. As a spectacle, the show impressed me. At the performance I saw, the flying worked flawlessly and, when Spider-Man landed on the balcony perch less than 10 feet in front of us, my otherwise jaded son gasped. I thought the garish and extravagant costumes showed a  level of superb artistry.

The first act held together fairly well, but the second act was an unmitigated disaster. I didn’t see how anyone could make sense of the parade of villains – each with interesting stories in the comics – dispatched in the first 10 minutes and then somehow revived by the (then) evil Arachne. Any expectation that the songs – none with any compelling melody line – would bolster the incomprehensible plot was scuttled well before intermission. And the ridiculous denouement – Spider-Man won’t submit to Arachne so she simply lets him go – was perhaps the most ineffectual ending I’ve seen on stage.


I’d barely a moment to contemplate the often glorious mess that was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (version 1.0) before I felt compelled to defend the show against its critics. I saw the show last fall, in its early previews, then again in February, after visible editing somewhat tightened the plot of the unintelligible second act. A slew of uninformed (read: hadn’t seen the show) commenters hit first, delighting in every “it’s the worst show ever!” rumor. Then came the impatient critics, one of whom called Spider-Man possibly the worst show ever (I can think of at least three worse).

I certainly couldn’t recommend Spider-Man to theater-going adults as an unequivocal artistic success, but I could as a meaningful theater experience, so I exhorted my friends to go and form their own opinions.

The show inspired the kind of arguments musicals rarely do: it crammed too many ideas in one space, but obviously believed desperately in all of them; its vision was wildly incoherent, yet it expanded my idea of what a musical can look like. In this show, as in her more critically acclaimed ones, Julie Taymor can essentially claim the same triumph:  inspiring the imagination, and pushing the boundary of what theater can become. I’ve never felt so conflicted about a Broadway musical before, and I fear that the latest incarnation of the show has lost the unfocused verve that made it exciting. But I’ll probably go to the Foxwoods Theater yet again.