After two years, the Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is still going strong despite early critical claims that the most expensive production theatre had ever seen wouldn’t last through the fall. But ain’t that Spider-Man through and through? Always the underdog, always getting bad press by newspapermen. Turn Off the Dark has proved all the naysayers wrong and continues to sell-out to this day. Surely you’ve heard this show’s reputation. You’ve heard of the revision, cancellation, and injuries and how throughout all the remarks of how troubled the show is, it has endured because people. Love. Spider-Man. So what I’m offering here is the point of view of the comic book fan who usually doesn’t get to play theatre critic. Even though I’ve always been more of a Batman guy (*ahem*Batman News’ Comics section*cough*) I have a decent grasp on the ol’ Webhead. So was Turn off the Dark true to the source material? An entertaining night? Worth the ticket price? Good enough for kids of all ages?
When it comes to a Broadway show like this you have to think about who the intended audience is. It’s not meant for the Shakespeare, Mamet, or Sondheim crowd (at least I hope it isn’t). It’s for kids much the way Batman: Live was. If you’re heading into the Foxwoods Theater expecting a deep psychological look at Peter Parker and his relationships you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re a 9 year old boy (or can still get in touch with your own inner child) who still thinks he can grow up to be Spider-Man when he reaches that oh so old age of high school senior, you’re going to love this. Plot, music, and costumes all leave a lot to be desired, but the spectacle of the sets and wirework… well, you spend $75 million on a stage production and your audience is going to see some pretty memorable sights.
First things first, even though it’s a great play for kids, it runs a bit too long. The first half is all about the origin of Spider-Man, which we should all be familiar with after seeing it play out almost the exact same way on film twice in the past decade. What sets Turn Off the Dark’s origin tale apart is the inclusion of these bizarre asides to the Greek myth of Arachne. Yes, her first appearance is mesmerizing because we see multiple women on swings woven from silk that form a tapestry with every motion and, yes, Arachne easily belts the most impressive vocals of the entire evening but every occasion in which we see Arachne (and she shows up quite often) it’s a jarring distraction that takes away from the Spider-Man story we all came to see. Everything else is so fanciful and childish and yet there’s this Arachne/fairy godmother subtext there to add a depth that really doesn’t exist (upon further reading I’ve actually found that Arachne’s role has been scaled down in recent performances and she was at one time seen far more frequently). They are great musical numbers with beautifully haunting visuals but they felt like they belonged to another play entirely.
Also like the Sam Raimi movies and the Ultimate Spider-Man series we see a Mary Jane who is already well acquainted with Peter. It’s a shame that mainstream audiences may never see one of the most classic character introductions in comics history (Face it tiger, you hit the—you know what I’m talking about). We see their romance blossom over the course of the first act, occasionally interrupted by the bullying of Flash Thompson. Everyone is rather one dimensional, but the performers brought a wonderful level of energy and fun to the lines they had to make it less of a slog. Carney and Faulkenberry in particular made a charming couple.
But what about radiation? Organic webshooters? Again, we’re taking a page out of the Raimi films. At times it really felt like writers Julie Taymor, Glen Berger, and Roberto Aguirre-Scasa never once opened the comics but instead watched the Raimi films and sprinkled in a few ideas of their own here and there (like the character Swiss Miss). Peter is indeed bitten by a genetically altered spider, his webshooters are organic, and our main villain is The Green Goblin. All the characters are handled quite well even if they are highly watered down caricatures of themselves. It’s the portrayal of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery where the attention to detail is completely lost.
Norman Osborn isn’t the Norman Osborn we all know. He’s sounds like a southerner and is quite funny and charismatic. Most of the show’s funniest lines are delivered by actor Robert Cuccioli. It’s a truly standout performance that everyone around me loved. Is it an accurate representation of the character? Absolutely not. It was more akin to a very child-friendly version of the Joker more than the nefarious Norman Osborn, but this interpretation was an entertaining character to see on stage and a real highlight of the evening. The audience never gets the feeling of hate for him, though. It’s simply understood that the green guy is bad and needs to be stopped by the good red guy. The worst attacks on the city are all the doing of the ambling “Sinister Six” while Green Goblin hangs back and taunts. As for the Sinister Six? Their origins are changed drastically and from what I recall they had no lines either. Kraven the Hunter, Swarm, The Lizard, Swiss Miss (an odd, shiny half-woman/half-blender invented for the stage production just so Spider-Man could have a monstrous female foe), Electro, and Carnage were all scientists who quit Oscorp. To get even with them all, Norman abducted each of them and turned them into their larger than life (and often inflatable) comic book likenesses. Lizard’s design was the strangest since it was a giant inflatable crocodile that burst from the chest (and back) of Curt Connors like a Xenomorph. Honestly, I was surprised that someone did a stage production of Spider-Man and didn’t choose Mysterio as the main villain. That seems like a no-brainer to me. Use Mysterio and you don’t even need these other villains—or you could still have them but they would be mere hallucinations with no need to totally rewrite their origins in the most convenient way possible.
The second act of the play is much faster paced and far more exciting than the first. In the beginning we’re only going through the motions of Raimi’s Spider-Man origin minus the incredibly important scene of Ben telling Peter “With great power…” or a moment in which Peter shrugs responsibility by letting a crook run free. There’s no chase after the man who killed Uncle Ben at all and very little importance is given to the old man. We just know that he was a good guy who shouldn’t have died and his death spurs Peter into action. The second half is all about watching Spider-Man swing over the crowd and beat up the long list of baddies. Nothing overly complicated, just a dazzling spectacle. And that’s what you’ll remember. Even though the story won’t stick in your mind, you won’t forget the sight of the Chrysler building stretching out over the crowd or Spider-Man swinging before the balcony.
This was where the show really shines. From the ever-changing houses of Queens to the vibrant monitors showcasing the rogues and the rising bridges and buildings, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is stunning to look at. I could have done without the giant cut-out Spider-Man catching a giant cut-out baby though. And the worst set was the wrestling match in which we all sat and watched a man in a spider-suit punch a large, inflatable Bonesaw McGraw (why they didn’t use an actual actor is beyond me) before a black background. Everything else, however, was top notch. The forced perspective of the high school hallways gave the scenery an incredible level of depth and the distant cars during the show’s finale may even give you a sense of vertigo—it was really a great effect to actually feel like you were in the sky looking down from the top of the Chrysler building.
The music was handled by Bono and The Edge from the band U2 and…it sounds like generic U2. There are even a couple of occasions where we hear songs directly from the groups’ albums from the past decade (one of which was actually part of one of the very best jokes in the show). Overall the music and lyrics weren’t too memorable but there were a few I thoroughly enjoyed. I had hoped for something more impressive since I actually enjoy The Joshua Tree and All That You Can’t Leave Behind but in the end there are only three songs that still stand out in my mind 4 days later: The titular song Turn Off the Dark was well done (as were all songs sung by the actress who played Arachne, Katrina Lenk), Bouncing Off the Walls, and If the World Should End was a solid number too with great vocals and a sentimental and simple plucking of strings.
Spider-Man looks fine, but the villains all give off a theme park vibe. Their oversized heads, dangling doodads, and inflatable accessories are about as corny as it gets. And as for the Green Goblin himself? Did you ever see Gremlins 2? There was a Gremlin who drank some plant potion which made him grow leafy scales that sprouted vegetables—that’s what Green Goblin looked like.
This is what the show is truly known for: seeing Spider-Man swing above your seats. It’s awesome. Even though the cables and safety harnesses are completely visible, it’s a cool thing to see. And there really isn’t a bad seat in the house because of this effect. Spider-Man will swing all the way up to the highest balcony, land, and interact with the crowd. I can only imagine how thrilling it was for the children who saw Spidey point to them and give a nod. So no worries about accidents anymore. They worked out all the kinks long ago and it’s an impressive sight.
You’re not going for the plot and most of the characters are distilled down to their most one-dimensional forms but if you’re a parent going to New York with a little Spider-Man fan, you really couldn’t show your child a better time than Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. You just better be willing to spend a couple hundred bucks to give them the wonderful memory of seeing a real-life webslinger battle his arch enemy overhead.