Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark: A Meta-Mess

I've been following the saga of Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark for many years, and I have a lot of friends working on the show. I saw a preview last night, and I commend the producers and everyone involved for boldly taking a risk this large here in the heart of the theatre world. The price they have paid is being beseiged by snarky commenters who seem to be rooting for this show to bomb and become the next Moose Murders or Carrie. I am not a hater; in fact, I love big technological spectacles, and have written about many fine examples of this genre on this blog over the years. I want this show to succeed, but after seeing the preview last night, I'm afraid that it might be too late.  I hope I'm wrong.

I haven't read any of the preview-reviews, and found last night's performance to be very polished, with only a few minor technical glitches, and one minor pause before the first big flying scene (one of the producers made a curtain speech to warn us that this might happen). When I started in this business in the 1980's, the Phantom chandelier, quaint by today's standards, set the technological bar.  Spiderman kicks that bar several orders of magnitude higher, and is a shining example of the amazing evolution of live entertainment technology, the kind usually only seen Vegas or Macau or Shanghai.

The show is visually stunning, and this isn't surprising because it was designed by George Tsypin, whose work I have loved literally for decades.  The sets are truly amazing, and Freddy Gallo and the gang at PRG have done an amazing job, working with modern materials and fabrication techniques, and integrating things to a level I've never seen on Broadway. Don Holder's lighting was great, and Kyle Cooper and Howard Werner create a great example of the mature use of video technologies in a live show; there is some standard playback, but there is also inventive usage that is very well integrated with the visuals, expanding on, rather than overwhelming the rest of the show. Bono and The Edge's music is fine, and Jonathan Deans' sound is smooth and precise as always, and flawlessly mixed.

Scott Rogers' and Jaque Paquin's aerial work, built on Scott Fisher's amazing flying system, is incredible and awe inspiring (although as a geek, I was watching the rigging more than the performers). I've long been a fan of circus and aerial work like this (and have seen stunning shows like Cirque's Ka from backstage), and I have to say, after so much bad press, that I didn't see any stunts in the show that seemed reckless, at least from the audience perspective. While of course the performers are taking risks, it seems more likely that director/writer Julie Taymor's botching of the process and wasting of time, and the resulting exhaustion of the crew, is far more likely at fault for the injuries than any specific technological issues (the standard whipping boy of ignorant theatre critics), or callous disregard for the actors' safety.

OK, those are the good parts of the show. Unfortunately, there is an elephant in this room, one so large that even Houdini couldn't vanish it: the story. Taymor has proven that she is more than capable of telling the Spidey story in a beautiful and artful way. Instead, she piled on layers of meta context that are completely irrelevant, add nothing, and just make the whole thing a lumbering, confusing mess, which distances the audiences rather than drawing them in. For instance, we have the completely irrelevant "Geek Chorus" of stereoptical urban comic book nerds who are "creating fan fiction" and are there, I guess, to tell us that we are watching a story. The teens have a couple scenes and then they hang out stage left on the apron for most of the rest of the show, observing and reacting to the action, and sometimes intervening. Fortunately, they mostly vanish in Act II, and let's hope that this simultaneously pretentious and cliched plot device has, by opening, ended up in the trash heap.

While the chorus is hanging out on one side of the proscenium, two members of the 20 or so piece band--the guitarist and the bass player--are hanging out on the other side. Not likely coincidentally, these two players are members of lead actor Reeve Carney's band (I guess they couldn't fit the drummer). I have no idea why they are there, other than to maybe reassure ticket buyers that they are not listening to a recording. They are simply a distraction and should move to the pit with the rest of the orchestra, along with a painfully bad role for a joint-compound bucket playing drummer.

After so much spectacular flying and visually stunning scenic moments, the show has probably the most anti-climactic ending I have ever seen: MJ says something like "go get 'em Spidey" and then a large drop comes in. I hope this is simply a placeholder for something to be worked out before opening, since I know they ran out of tech time.

Cutting all those elements (and some other things too numerous to mention here) would help the show a lot, since when we stayed within Peter Parker's world and the Spider-Man story, the show worked. The biggest applause last night was for a simple duet between Peter and Mary Jane (and there was a lot of cheering for the flying, of course).

But even cutting all that, a massive problem would still remain: Taymor's Arachne spider meta-character, which is completly unnecessary and just further dilutes the story and confuses the audience. But I'm afraid this character's web is too tightly woven into the script to be eliminated at this late date (and cutting the character would also cut a stunning scene where swinging performers and the scenic automation system weave a tapestry before our eyes.)

The tragedy of this show is that it could have been great spectacle and a good show at the same time.  But it seems that a legion of money people simply deferred to Taymor's vision, and this is very unfortunate, since friends on the show, who have worked in the business for decades, have described her to me as a "dictator" and a "tyrant". I've worked with people like this, who, despite their brilliance, won't work collaboratively, and do so to their own detriment. This is a constant struggle in art--if the creatordoesn't have an honest critic who they trust, they can often descend into self-indulgence.  Taymor has a "Myth of Arachne" piece in the program, which defines hubris as, "the sort of arrogance that makes you forget your own humanity". It's some sort of meta-irony that Taymor has included this passage, but was apparently not been able to take that message to heart in her own work.

p.s. I'll go out on a limb and say that this show (unless there are huge cuts and rewriting) will run about a year and then close in early 2012.  I hope I'm wrong....