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

By Peter Marks
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.

The tale doesn't so much unfold as ooze out, on the operating theory that if you throw everything against a theater wall, something might stick. It essentially begins with the superhero metamorphosis of nerdy Peter Parker, played by the likable Matthew James Thomas at the performance I attended; he alternates in the role with Reeve Carney. From there, things get convoluted, fast.

Solemn comic-book myths merge with solemn Greek myths and apocalyptic environmental visions for the origin stories of heroes and villains, who multiply in numbers (and ever more outrageous get-ups) as the production wears on. Shapeless expository scenes in laboratories and newsrooms elongate the proceedings. A perfunctory romance lurches along between Peter and the love of his life, budding actress Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano).

A so-called "Geek Chorus" of caffeinated Marvel comic fanatics (Gideon Glick, Jonathan Schwartz, Mat Devine and Alice Lee) hangs out on the edge of the stage, offering utterly superfluous commentary. Maybe they'd earn their place up there if they could explain the ludicrous role of Arachne (T.V. Carpio), a woman transformed by the goddess Athena into a spider who has spent several millennia awaiting the arrival of another spider-human hybrid. She's a New Agey sort of bad gal who has the worst song in the show, something to do with a raid on 50 shoe stores by Arachne's gang of eight-legged Furies. The high-heeled spoils are affixed to, yes, the spider-ladies' extremities.

Or wait, maybe the bottom of the barrel is a weird on-the-runway sequence, in which a cadre of second-tier villains with names like Swiss Miss and Carnage do a bit of high-fashion sashaying. In the running, too, is a bizarre military number, as well as the first-act closer, a rip-off of a Rodgers and Hart song. The latter is sung by - get out your score cards - the other main-event evildoer, the Green Goblin, a former scientist played by the talented classical actor Patrick Page.

Page and the other principal actors, burdened by Taymor and Glen Berger's lumbering book, never stand a chance.

The score, by Bono and the U2 guitarist the Edge, is an ineffectual bystander. It's loud and pulsing and devoid of personality. I've rarely experienced a production in which the music is so completely drowned out by the sets. Designer George Tsypin uses elaborate hydraulics to conjure the Chrysler Building and other Manhattan skyscrapers from all sorts of angles and perspectives.

The images are intended to showcase the musical's star. That would not be a person, but a rope trick. Spider-gliding is what this show is selling, and so you wait for the wires to be hooked to the phalanx of stunt men who take turns being guided from midair onto ledges on the theater's upper levels.

If watching actors in latex land in the mezzanine is your idea of an evening well spent, "Spider-Man" won't seem a gargantuan waste. Musical lovers, however, might wish the whole unsalvageable thing would just take a flying leap.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark music and lyrics by Bono and the Edge, book by Julie Taymor and Glen Berger. Directed by Taymor. Dance and aerial choreography, Daniel Ezralow; lighting, Donald Holder; costumes, Eiko Ishioka; sound, Jonathan Deans; projections, Kyle Cooper; aerial design, Scott Rogers; music direction, Kimberly Grigsby. With Isabel Keating, Michael Mulheren. About 2 hours 50 minutes. At Foxwoods Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St., New York. Visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 877-250-2929.

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