I was hanging out in Manhattan this past weekend and my hotel was right next to the Foxwoods Theater on Broadway, where they have the most expensive production ever: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. On a whim, my fiancée and I got tickets. The show got a lot of bad publicity early on for their extended rehearsal shows which had five injuries and early complaints about the story being incomprehensible. The show got retooled and what we saw makes a lot more sense but there are definitely elements that are left over from the initial version that Julie Taymore directed. Following are my thoughts on what works and what doesn’t, and hopefully that can inform you of whether you’d enjoy going to the show (Broadway shows aren’t cheap, after all). But be warned if you’re a fan of the comic book version of Spider-Man: there’s a lot of zany stuff that could drive you nuts if you’re hoping for a literal adaptation.
What’s it about? The musical is about Peter Parker’s origin as Spider-Man, romance with Mary Jane Watson, and Spider-Man’s battle with the Green Goblin. But at least two of those elements are unlike the versions you’ve read about or seen in the films.
Who’s in it? Sorry, no one you’ve ever heard of. On the night I saw it, the understudy for Peter Parker/Spider-Man was performing, Jake Odmark. I thought he was very good. The main actor doesn’t do every performance, because of the very intense wire-work involved in the fight choreography (more on that later). Rebecca Faulkenberry played Mary Jane and she’s been in Rock of Ages on Broadway and some West End theater. Robert Cuccioli plays Norman Osborn/Green Goblin. He’s been in Les Miserables and was nominated for a Tony in Jekyll and Hyde. He’s a standout. The actress for Arachne, Christina DeCicco, has been in tons of stuff: Evita, Wicked, Sister Act. She’s a great singer, but in a role that is not necessary to the story (read on for more on that).
What are the musical numbers and are they any good? There are 10 songs in Act I and another 9 in Act II. They are pretty good but not always memorable. They fall into several categories: Pretty but forgettable, Sounds like a U2 song (all the music is by Bono and The Edge), Campy but fun, and Good musical numbers. Let’s break the story down and I’ll mention the numbers as relevant.
Discussion on the musical as a whole (Spoilers – Skip to the next bolded section at the bottom for overall thoughts)
The story begins with Peter Parker giving a presentation in his high school on Greek mythology, specifically Arachne. Apparently, in the early version of this musical, Arachne was a literal character who had a song about trying on shoes and she becomes the main villain in Act II, creating the Sinister Six. There’s none of that here. Instead she appears about 3 times singing songs that are more inspirational to Peter in his dreams or subconscious.
In the first number, “The Myth of Arachne,” we literally see Peter’s presentation. Arachne engages in a weaving contest with Athena. Arachne sings her story, “Behold and Wonder.” She wins and Athena destroys her work in anger. Arachne hangs herself in depression and Athena feels guilty, so she brings her back to life, transformed into the world’s first spider. Arachne’s story is about hubris. Hey, that ties in with Peter Parker’s eventual origin, right? When he ignores the criminal who kills his Uncle Ben, which sets him on his heroic path? Not in this version! Arachne’s number features a chorus swinging back and forth weaving a tapestry. It’s a very impressive visual and the song is Pretty but forgettable.
Class ends and Peter is teased by Flash Thompson and a gang of students. They sing “Bullying by the Numbers” which is Campy but fun. Peter walks home, talking to his friend (and crush) Mary Jane Watson. The set is very impressive, featuring illustrated houses that flip perspective along with a hidden rotating treadmill on the stage that allows the actors to actually walk and talk. They break into song, like ya do in musical theater, and we learn that Mary Jane has an abusive father (no hitting, just drunken yelling) and Peter suffers from bullying. The song is called “No More” and this one falls more on the forgettable side of Pretty but forgettable. At home, we also meet Uncle Ben and Aunt May who are nice to Peter. No big lessons or anything.
Later, Peter and his class are on a field trip to the genetics laboratory of Norman Osborn and his wife, Emily. Yeah, in this version Norman Osborn is treated kind of like Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2. He has a wife but there’s no Harry Osborn. It’s kind of weird. Norman and Emily have a number, “D.I.Y. World” and I guess I should’ve created another category – completely forgettable. Osborn really likes Peter because of some science award he got. It’s totally the Doc Ock story. Peter takes photos and by the way, the prop for that is not a real camera. It’s a cardboard drawing of a camera. They do lots of that where some of the set is illustrated. It wasn’t my favorite element because it made comic books seem a bit simple, but at the same time, it puts you in a heightened, theatrical reality. The genetics set also had an impressive walkway above where the students entered. The sets have a huge amount of height to them and use it well. Arachne always lowers from the rafters and has a huge set of animatronic legs. It was creepy and beautiful. Later, Peter and Mary Jane are sitting on a fire escape that similarly hangs from the rafters high above everything else. While Peter takes pictures a huge animatronic spider (very creepy and cool) lowers and bites Peter, while the class bullies sing “Venom,” one of the Campy songs.
At home, Peter is in his bedroom in a set that looks like it’s illustrated by Dr. Seuss. He realizes he’s got his spider powers and begins jumping around his room and singing “Bouncing Off the Walls” which Sounds like a U2 song. The walls are held by stage performers that expand and contract them while the wire harness allows Peter to jump all over the place. He continues singing and beating up the school bullies until he sees Flash drive by in his car with Mary Jane. Peter decides he needs a car and enters a wrestling tournament to get the money. This is all straight out of the Spider-Man movie by Sam Raimi. He even fights Bonesaw McGraw who… is a huge pool toy. I don’t know how else to describe it. He’s a huge inflatable angry looking toy, held by a guy in a t-shirt that sort of shakes him at Peter.
After winning the match, Peter gets home and Uncle Ben has just been shot by a carjacker. Yup, the musical completely skips out on Peter meeting his uncle’s killer beforehand. Nevertheless, Arachne descends and sings to Peter that he needs to use his gifts in the musical’s best number, “Rise Above.” Peter does say his famous line, “With great power, comes great responsibility” but it was not taught to him by Uncle Ben. He just comes up with it. Peter creates his Spider-Man costume, which is very similar to the Sam Raimi movies’ look. Similar color red and blue, web design and eyes. However, it doesn’t have firm borders between the red and blue. It sort of blends, like spray paint. Overall, it looks very good and the musical has nine stunt performers that swing around above your head once Spidey appears. He first shows up to take down Hammerhead and two of his henchmen. They all have cartoony big heads and are dressed like 1920s gangsters. Eventually, Spider-Man opens up these silly string/party poppers of string on them and they’re webbed up/defeated.
The Daily Bugle has a scene where J. Jonah Jameson wants photos of Spider-Man. He hires Peter as a photographer. It’s short and sweet, fairly funny. Norman, meanwhile, is convinced Spider-Man was created by his research. Norman is under pressure by some weird group called Viper, which he’s accepted funding from, to hurry up and produce results. He sings about it in “Pull the Trigger” which is Campy but fun. While that goes on, Peter shares a romantic moment with Mary Jane and they sing “Picture This” which is Pretty but forgettable. Norman decides to experiment on himself and an electrical surge kills Emily. Shrouded in fog and lights, we don’t see what Norman has become as the show goes to Intermission.
In Act II, Norman has kidnapped his old scientists that left him when funding was drying up. He uses the same experiment that he did to himself on them, creating the Sinister Six: Carnage, Electro, Kraven the Hunter, Lizard, Swarm, and Swiss Miss. This is going to be the biggest hurdle for comics fans. Basically, all 7 villains are mutants. Several of these characters have never been in a comics version of the Sinister Six, Kraven is a human being in the comics and Swiss Miss is original to the musical. The costumes for this are super, super campy. Electro looks like a robot, so I’m not sure how that’s a mutant. Kraven has a big fake head and chest. Swiss Miss is some sort of human swiss army knife. Lizard is possibly the weirdest looking one. He has a huge inflatable dinosaur sort of pop out of his chest but his human head is still there at first so it looks like a man and a T-Rex got spliced together. However, the song “A Freak Like Me Needs Company” is a blast. Mostly this is because the Green Goblin is kind of hilarious and a complete showman. It really works for a musical.
That night, Mary Jane and Peter are on a fire escape, watching the stars and they sing “If the World Should End” to each other. It’s Pretty but forgettable, but the set is cool and the performers were really strong. The Sinister Six then go on a rampage through New York and sing “Sinistereo” which is Campy but fun. Spidey shows up and pretty much defeats each of them the same way, with that silly string stuff. It’s very fast. However, it’s well staged. Different Spideys keep popping up in different parts of the stage, throwing “webbing” and you never know where he’s going to show up with a villain next. Also, the swinging above the audience stuff is pretty astounding. The New York ensemble sings “Spider-Man!” which I can’t really remember. I guess I was too distracted with the “fighting.”
Green Goblin then goes to the Daily Bugle and tells Jameson about his plan to take over the world through genetic mutation. He claims he gave Spider-Man life, so Jameson continues down his path of thinking the two are criminals. Peter is all stressed out and as he sleeps, Arachne appears and sings that he’s a hero with a destiny with “Turn Off the Dark” which is decent.
Peter is at a point where he’s got no money, the media is attacking him, and he’s so tired he missed Mary Jane’s debut on Broadway. Mary Jane is tired of his excuses and wants to keep him as a friend, so she suggests they break up in the song “I Just Can’t Walk Away”, which is Pretty but forgettable. Peter decides not to be Spider-Man any more (it’s pretty similar to Spider-Man 2). He gives the costume to Jameson and tells him Spider-Man has quit. Peter takes Mary Jane to a club and proposes to her, but it’s so loud she can’t hear him. Before he can ask again, Green Goblin takes over all the TV signals and tells Spider-Man he’ll kill his loved ones. That prompts Peter to take Mary Jane home and break up with her for good so that she’s not a target. As he walks away, he sings “Boy Falls From Sky”, which is pretty good. He decides he needs to be a hero for Mary Jane and for everyone. He takes back his costume and goes to find the Goblin.
The Green Goblin is next seen playing a piano on top of the Chrysler Building and sings about destroying New York in “I’ll Take Manhattan”, which is somewhere between Campy and Awesome. Spidey arrives to fight but the Green Goblin has somehow reasoned out his identity. Peter unmasks and tries to reach Norman, but fails. Peter remasks and they battle, swinging over the audience in an amazing bit of choreography. The Green Goblin reveals Mary Jane is hanging above by some rope. The Green Goblin seems bound to win until Spider-Man webs him to his piano. The Goblin doesn’t notice and knocks the piano off the roof, sending him plummeting to the ground below. Spider-Man rescues Mary Jane and she reveals she’s figured out who he is, too. He takes his mask off and they sing about their potential life together in “Finale – A New Dawn”, which is Pretty but forgettable. Spider-Man then swings off to the sound of police sirens, but comes back down from above and kisses Mary Jane upside down in the now-iconic image.
I had a really good time but my fiancée had a great time. She isn’t very familiar with the Spider-Man mythos so she went in with no expectations and really enjoyed the songs. It may play better to a mass audience than a comics fan. I was able to let go for the most part, knowing there would be lots of singing and choreographed ensemble pieces. I especially enjoyed the wire work. It was pretty amazing. Several of the songs were good and I have had “Rise Above” stuck in my head ever since the performance. The weirdest element is the Sinister Six and Arachne does not fill a vital role. However, Norman Osborn, Mary Jane and Peter are all really strong. Go for the spectacle. Don’t go for a literal adaptation of Spider-Man for the stage. Good actors, great singers. I’d give it 2 out of 3 thumbs.
For more information and tickets, visit the Foxwoods Theatre site.