'Spider-Man' on Broadway: No superpowers needed to sniff out this stinker

A banner covering the front of the Foxwoods Theater on 42nd street in New York for the "Spider-Man" play.
A banner covering the front of the Foxwoods Theater on 42nd street in New York for the "Spider-Man" play. (AP)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 8:39 PM

NEW YORK - If you're going to spend $65 million and not end up with the best musical of all time, I suppose there's a perverse distinction in being one of the worst.

Mind you, I haven't seen every stinker ever produced, so I can't categorically confirm that "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" belongs in the dankest subbasement of the American musical theater. But its application certainly seems to be in order.

What's apparent after 170 spirit-snuffing minutes in the Foxwoods Theatre - interrupted by the occasional burst of aerial distraction - is that director Julie Taymor, of "The Lion King" fame, left a few essential items off her lavish shopping list:

1. Coherent plot

2. Tolerable music

3. Workable sets

To be sure, Taymor has found a way to send her superhero soaring above the audience. And yet, the creature that most often spreads its wings in the Foxwoods is a turkey.

As you no doubt are aware, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" has made one of the most snakebitten (and heavily publicized) forays onto Broadway in memory. Money problems were followed by mechanical mishaps that sent several seriously injured actors to the hospital. Preview performances began Nov. 28; a formal opening night had been scheduled for Dec. 21. The musical's producers pushed back the date to Jan. 11, and later to Feb. 7, and then to March 15.

Reasonable observers can differ on how long a news organization should wait to inform readers about the merits of any production once it has been running for months (and charging as much as $275 for an orchestra seat). Based on the preview period's ever-expanding length and the intense public interest generated by the nationwide news coverage, this newspaper decided, like many other outlets, not to wait out the latest delay and observe Feb. 7 as the opening.

At the outset of the preview I attended, a man appeared onstage to read a short speech about the production's technical issues and to assure us that "the [New York State] Department of Labor has approved all of our aerial sequences." It should be noted that no significant glitches occurred over the ensuing two hours and 50 minutes.

Clearly, though, the Department of Lucidity has not been in the building in quite a while. Story-wise, "Spider-Man" is a shrill, insipid mess, a musical aimed squarely at a Cub Scout demographic. Looking at the sad results, you're compelled to wonder: Where did all those tens of millions go?

The 8-year-old boys in the audience might be able to key on the Cirque du Soleil-style stunts on wires and video-game graphic elements, and probably not worry too much that "Spider-Man" is a tangle of disjointed concepts, scenes and musical sequences that suggests its more appropriate home would be off a highway in Orlando. Come to think of it, the optimal audience might be non-English-speaking.

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