Tex and the City: Spider-Man’s Tangled Web

Today on Tex and the City: Jon Paul wishes there was a little more magic up Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man sleeve.

UPDATE 1.14.10: The producers of Spider-Man announced a delayed opening until March 15, saying the creative team needed more time to perfect a new ending.  Unfortunately, a spokesperson said that Bono was NOT writing any additional songs—which is very much needed.

There were touches of brilliance lighting up yesterday’s preview performance of the much buzzed about Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark at Foxwoods Theatre.  The aerial sequences over the audience of the superhero vs. nemesis Green Goblin were exhilarating—and not just because we were worried about safety.  Julie Taymor’s comic book inspired mask creations for the first villains that Spider-Man fights and citizens he saves were thrilling.  George Tsypin’s scenic design with a moving Chrysler building and Brooklyn Bridge were captivating.  Unfortunately, none of those good deeds could overcome the battle with a tangled plot web and mediocre score to help Spider-Man rise to the heights.

Let me get a few things out of the way.  First, I adore Julie Taymor and think she’s one of the most visually arresting artists working today—I’m not one of those people anxious for her to fail.  Second, I appreciate that she is trying to take an enormous risk—both artistically and financially—to mount a different type of show on Broadway—I’m not one of those naysayers about spending $65 million.  Third, I don’t think my thoughts on the show are nearly as critical as an official review in the New York Times so I don’t think it’s too early to share my view—when I am given official status as a critic perhaps I’ll change my tune.  But let me encourage Broadway producers and veterans to embrace the new age of social media like other brands—see it as a way to interact with customers and understand their reactions, rather than rail against them.  Enough said.  So let’s get to it.

Overall, the show is a muddled mess, which didn’t seem to bother the legion of young fans packed into the audience who cheered Spider-Man at every turn.  But for me, I had hoped for something a little loftier.  Indeed, Julie Taymor’s book with Glen Berger is clearly striving for something more—opening Act I with a complicated back story of a female weaver named Arachne (T.V. Carpio taking over for Natalie Mendoza) who was turned into a spider by the jealous Greek God Athena—told to us by a quartet of hipsters who are evidently writing their own Spider-Man storyline we’re about to see.  If it sounds complicated, it is.  And slows things down tremendously.  We’re nearly three quarters of the way through the first half before Peter (Broadway newcomer Reeve Carney) is finally himself transformed—and then the show flies, literally with the clever song “Bouncing Off the Walls,” that captures Peter’s pent up frustrations and new powers, followed by the song “Rise Above” that gives us Spider-Man’s true crime fighting persona.  That song was the first whisper of a catchy anthem, but yet didn’t quite gel overshadowed by all the flying action.

Therein lies the second biggest problem with the show: the music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge.  If this is going to be a rock musical filled with teenage angst, it’s going to have to work a lot harder to convey those passionate feelings.  The music felt very one note—U2.  That’s fine for the male characters, but doesn’t at all suit Mary Jane, played by Jennifer Damiano, whom I loved in her Tony-nominated role in Next to Normal.  Mary Jane is always a tough character to pull off—she has to be captivating to Peter but also lack self-confidence.  Here, Taymor has given her an intriguing back story with an alcoholic and abusive father—glimpsed briefly in a quick cut scene reminiscent of reading a comic book—a terrific staging device which unfortunately never appears again.  Poor Mary Jane never really gets a star number.  A duet with Peter called “Picture This” about dreaming of a better future turns into an oddball quartet with the soon-to-be-villain Green Goblin (Patrick Page) and his wife.  Sure, we’re supposed to see that villains have their reasons, too—but at the expense of Mary Jane and Peter?  Thankfully, I’ve read that Bono is back from a brief tour and focusing on the music—including a new closing number, which this show desperately needs.

The plot becomes even more confusing in Act II when our hipsters transform into a Greek Chorus and begin interacting at times with Peter Parker.  Odd, and hard to follow.  But wait, there are six new villains to fight—some of them sprung from Taymor’s imagination including the Grace Jones dominatrix-inspired Swiss Miss! And Arachne returns—more important than ever before!  Wait, a weird plot twist, Spider-Man has to defeat all the villains for the second time!  Holy complications Batman, what’s going on?!

Before the show, Chef and I took bets on how many times they might have to halt the production for technical glitches.  I was optimistic with “none.”  Chef argued for “two.”  And when the flying sequences began we watched closely for any hard landings—I could see why there were some broken ankles.  All seemed relatively smooth until the final moments when just before the finale some type of web is supposed to rise up as a backdrop.  After a stage manager announced pause, the show went on without the web, which must have played a crucial role in the final scene—I’m guessing that Mary Jane was supposed to be tangled in it—otherwise I’m not sure why Peter was pantomiming action to something that didn’t exist.

But, oh those aerial sequences.  They are spectacular.  On the one hand, I wanted more of them—perhaps to keep my mind off the sticky quagmire of a plot.  On the other, I couldn’t help thinking—is that all I really what I want from a live performance—tricks?  For many in the audience, the tricks were more than enough—and hopefully a spectacle like this will bring even more attendees to Broadway.  Chef reminded me that a young kid seeing Spider-Man fly overhead for the first time probably would be hooked on the theatre for life.  I just hope that young kid learns to hunger for more—like at least one hummable song that can be performed on the Today Show and Macy’s Thanskgiving Day Parade.

I longed for a magically richer tale up Julie Taymor’s sleeve.  Here’s hoping that by the official opening on February 7th, she’s able to untangle Spider-Man’s complicated web.

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