Theater: ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’

When last we left Spidey, boy, oh, boy, was he in a pickle. Rampaging super-villains are one thing — they come with the territory. But those reviews! Holy clock-cleaning!

So Spider-Man’s big Broadway ­support team hunkered down to figure out how to wrestle with this new cosmic kind of archenemy: Call him Mr. Expecting-the-Semblance-of-a-Comprehensible-Musical. In the aftermath, scenes were tossed, numbers re­arranged, people jettisoned. (That’s you, General Taymor!)

And now, after a six-month “preview” period replete with saturation news coverage, high-wire accidents, preemptive critic attacks, legal saber-rattling and major rewrites, the   $70 million (or maybe even $75 million) “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” has executed the one daring step that some predicted it would never take.

It opened.

What swings from the rafters, springs from the wings and bursts from the stage floor of the Foxwoods Theatre is a definite upgrade from the flailing behemoth on view in February, when I and a bunch of other reviewers, tired of the delays, took a gander at what director Julie Taymor had wrought. Still, in the story set to rock music by Bono and the Edge — of meek Peter Parker’s acquisition of spidery agility and subsequent battle royal with the dastardly Green Goblin — this effects-driven musical is still situated a wide canyon’s distance from good.

Unless you’ve spent the last half-year in a cryogenic tank, you know that this obscenely expensive musical has been trying to work out its kinks in a fishbowl. The hubris of the process has flowed in many directions, but for all its reliance on mechanistic marvels, the show still lacks what used to be worked out for a musical with a pencil and some paper: a persuasive argument for what Spider-Man has to sing about. Fly around the theater as he might (along with several stuntmen in Spidey costumes), the character is emotionally static. And so even in its incrementally surer form, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” can’t shed the sensation that it would find a more suitable base of operations someplace like Coney Island.

The improvements that have been made are to the evening’s logical progress. You can’t go so far as to declare that “Spider-Man” has found its voice, but at least now you can understand what it’s saying. Banished are the protracted distractions created by secondary bad guys, the irritating asides by the so-called “Geek Chorus,” the jaw-dropping excesses of pretension, such as the gaggle of multi-legged spider-ladies dancing in high heels stolen from New York shoe stores.

Philip Wm. McKinley, who directed Hugh Jackman in “The Boy From Oz” on Broadway, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a playwright and Marvel comic-book writer, were brought in by the producers after Taymor was let go in March, even as she continued to work on the show. Determining who is responsible for what may eventually be left to experts in contract law; McKinley is billed as the musical’s “creative consultant,” and Taymor is credited with the “original direction,” as well as co-writing the book, or script, and designing the masks.

Wherever the changes originated, they are for the better, in part because they’ve led to more prominent contributions by Jennifer Damiano, who plays Peter’s love interest, Mary Jane Watson, and by Patrick Page, as the diabolical Green Goblin.

Although the nature of the Goblin’s hyper-violently maniacal fixation on Spider-Man remains a fuzzy plot point, the consolation is that the evening’s villainy is now all concentrated in the visage of Page. T.V. Carpio’s Arachne, who previously had shared the evil honors as an avenging human-spider hybrid from Greek myth, has been relegated to a minor role, as a benevolent kindred spirit in Spider-Man’s dreams. The part feels vestigial — retained perhaps because she’s introduced at the beginning of the show with some acrobatics spinning a web of fabric that were too costly to simply toss.

In any event, Page appears to be having a ball, filling the hall with mad-doctor guffaws. He camps it up as gleefully as Cyril Ritchard once did, playing Captain Hook to Mary Martin’s Peter Pan.

Neverland’s template is a potential spine for the “Spider-Man” narrative, even if at this point the dynamic between the hero and villain remains underdeveloped. That’s no knock on Reeve Carney, whose Peter Parker charmingly oozes adolescent vulnerability, a trait reinforced in his reedy intonations. He could be James Franco’s wallflower of a little brother. This happens to work for the morose little romance between this Peter and Mary Jane, though you could wish their connection didn’t remind you quite so much of what you feel watching kitchen-sink drama.

Bono and the Edge’s score doesn’t reverberate this time around with any more theatrical joy or wit. On the plus side, however, the whole enterprise is now about 20 minutes shorter. Getting less, in this case, feels like a bonus.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

music and lyrics by Bono and the Edge, book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Creative consultant, Philip Wm. McKinley. Original direction, Taymor. Aerial and dance choreography, Daniel Ezralow; additional choreography, Chase Brock. Sets, George Tsypin; lighting, Donald Holder; costumes, Eiko Ishioka; sound, Jonathan Deans; projections, Kyle Cooper; music direction, Kimberly Grigsby. With Michael Mulheren, Ken Marks, Isabel Keating. About 2½ hours. At Foxwoods Theatre, 213 W. 43rd St., New York. Visit www.ticketmaster.com.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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