If anything can be learned from this year's Tony Awards, it's that Broadway audiences are throwing their support behind groundbreaking, flashy, new shows that entertain, such as "The Book of Mormon" and "War Horse." "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the $70 million production that finally opened officially on Tuesday night, is following suit. The show is part circus, part pop concert and part video game. That combination may not make for a poignant musical that twangs at the heartstrings of its audience (à la the Spider-Man movies or comics), but "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" is a fast-paced, elaborate show.
The theatrics get off the ground during the first scene of the play. A super-geeky Peter Parker, played by actor and indie rocker Reeve Carney, is telling his P.S. 134 class the mythological story of how the Greek goddess Athena turned the weaver Arachne into a spider. As he tells the tale, seven muses appear onstage, swinging from gold swaths of fabric attached to the ceiling of the stage. Arachne, played by T.V. Carpio -- she got the role after Natalie Mendoza sustained a concussion in November -- glides down from the stage rafters in song like a circus performer or high-wire artist. As Peter wraps up the myth of the weaver, a noose tightens around Arachne's neck, she molts into a spider and ascends back up to the stage ceiling. Then, the stage shifts and the muses disappear into the bowels of the theatre.
More pageantry takes place onstage after Peter gets bitten by a genetically engineered female spider at Norman Osbourn's Oscorp labs on a high school field trip. The audience learns that the bite has imbued Peter with special powers when he starts doing air somersaults and wall climbing in his bedroom to a number called "Bouncing Off the Walls." The acrobatics are somewhat clunky — six onstage techs visible to the audience move the walls of Peter's room around while he's flipping about — but the routine is unconventional and interesting to watch.
Things really heat up after Peter's Uncle Ben gets killed. The murder moves him to become Spider-Man and use his new-found powers to fight the city's bad guys, many of them cartoonish black-and-white figures making off with stolen bags of benjamins. At one point, there are half a dozen Spideys flying around fighting crime, many of them soaring over the audience onto a landing on the second floor flying circle. (Christopher Tierney, the actor who sustained a cracked vertebrae and skull fracture during a fall into the orchestra pit in December, plays one of them.)
Although not all the stuntmen make the lightest of landings, the swoops, soars and high-speed hoists are without doubt the fastest on Broadway, and that makes the aerial routines terrifying and pretty cool to watch. The most impressive flying stunt comes at the end of the play when Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, played by Patrick Page, tangle high above the heads of the audience. Multiple cords attached to the harnesses they wear run to the moving computer-controlled flying contraptions on the theatre ceiling. Thank Philip William McKinley for ironing out the bugs in the show's advanced flying stunts. The former director of the Ringley Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus was brought into the production in March to take over the day-to-day directing of the show after Julie Taymor was ousted from her directorial post. (Taymor is still being billed as a director on the show's marquee and playbill.)
On top of the show's ambitious acrobatics, the producers have incorporated something else not often associated with Broadway: high definition video. After the Green Goblin creates six mutated creatures with the help of his trusty Oscorp gene splicer — "I like to call 'em the Sinster Six," he says ghoulishly in a vaguely Southern accent — they appear larger than life on a massive television screen that takes up the whole height and width of the back of the Foxwoods stage. Each of the villainous creatures (Carnage, Electro, Kraven the Hunter, The Lizard, Swarm and Swiss Miss) get their moments on the screen as if they are fighters in a Mortal Combat-style video game. The effect is a little disjointed -- plus, most people head to Broadway to get away from video screens -- but it keeps the pace of the production moving along.
The highly produced score, which is composed by U2's Bono and the Edge, complements the show's in-your-face, over-the-top visuals. Most of the songs are pop numbers, like the catchy torch song Reeve Carney sings in the second act, "The Boy Falls From the Sky." Other songs may transport you to something by the Irish rock band, like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" or a track from Rattle and Hum. Patrick Page singing "I'll Take Manhattan" sounds a little like Leonard Cohen singing "First We Take Manhattan." Carpio as Arache sings "Turn Off the Dark" with mystical, almost Sufi-style vocals as the 18-member orchestra plays along under the direction of long-time Broadway conductor Kimberly Grigsby.
Comic book fans will appreciate the Stan Lee announcement at the beginning of the performance urging audience members not to catch a ride with the superheroes and to turn off their cell phones: "Hey, you wouldn't want to offend the Green Goblin," says the original creator of Spider-Man for Marvel Comics in the 1960s. Cool comic book-style art also makes up much of the set design, and some of the classic lines from the comics, including, "With great power there must also come great responsibility," are also in the musical. One of the crowd pleasers are the silly string Spider-Man shoots out from his palms to simulate webs.
Although the storyline in "Spider-Man" is easy to follow -- the story was recently revamped by playwright (and Spider-Man comics writer) Robert Aguirre-Sacasa -- the show doesn't have the poignant moments that some of the Spider-Man movies have. Both Peter and Mary Jane Watson (played by Jennifer Damiano, who starred in "Next to Normal") deal with loss, love and transformation, but the ways they are dealt with onstage don't have the gravitas or emotional depth they could have. There are also things about the production that don't make sense, especially the references by the publisher of The Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson, played by Michael Mulheren, to fighting the Internet, bloggers, and Facebook. These 21st century trappings don't jive with reporters writing wire copy on typewriters in his newsroom or a New York City skyline dominated by the Chrysler Building.
In terms of the acting, each of the leads gives solid deliveries, but there's no one cast member or performance that stands out. Carney's corny old-school lines like, "Woah-ho! Sorry, I'm late. You wouldn't believe the traffic," while en route to rescuing a nun in distress are endearing and the flying he does onstage -- something usually reserved for stuntmen -- is impressive. Patrick Page as The Green Goblin has some of the funniest lines and he delivers them with aplomb, poking fun at the six delays that "Spider-Man," the most expensive show on Broadway, has had, "I'm a $65 million circus tragedy. Well, more like $75 million." Damiano does a good job as Mary Jane. Her voice is bigger than Carney's and she gets some laughs when, for instance, she calls Spider-Man her "celebrity crush." Throughout the show, T.V. Carpio looks remarkably calm for being hung so high above the stage. At times, her voice evokes Lady Gaga, Belinda Carlisle and Pat Benatar.
Overall, "Spider-Man" is the kind of show that's amusing and entertaining, but one that may leave you asking for more. But as long as audience members are up for a Broadway experience full of high-speed hoists, video gaming and pop ballads, the producers of the show will have no trouble filling the seats at the Foxwoods Theatre. The musical, after 183 preview shows, is open-ended.
Click below to see a slideshow of scenes from "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."