Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
Directed by Philip William McKinley, taking over for Julie Taymor
Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Music & Lyrics by Bono and The Edge
The central song in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is titled “Rise Above,” and the show could stand to heed such counsel. After critics widely panned the disaster-plagued production in February, it closed for three weeks; what has emerged is an insipid spectacle, reworked and rewritten, incapable of offending the middlebrow tourists who are key to its financial success. Too much money is at stake to fuck around. I didn’t see Julie Taymor’s original version, and I don’t doubt that it was the sensational mess its detractors described. But this Version 2.0 isn’t better—it’s just a blander, by-committee kind of bad, and for that it deserves more of our scorn than its predecessor did.
The opening number, “Behold and Wonder,” introduces Arachne (T.V. Carpio), the weaver who, in Ovid, became the first spider. Her minions hang from silks, slowly descending to the stage as horizontal strips of fabric rise up, creating an enormous web. The connection between this immortal and Peter Parker (Reeve Carney, a Bono impersonator) might be hazy, but the staging is inventive and the melody Eastern-inflected, which helps it transcend the uninspired U2 pastiches that otherwise comprise the score. Though “Behold and Wonder” was saved, Arachne has otherwise been reduced almost to nothing; I imagine, from the traces that survive, that she was meant to parallel Taymor’s role as artist and creator, and in the wake of her dismissal this meta-ness has only been magnified: just as Arachne is punished for her hubris—for suggesting her own weaving was superior to Athena’s—so too was Taymor fired for her excessive ambition, her hubris toward a godlike league of Broadway producers.
Act II once revolved around Arachne, but now the plot more closely resembles that of Sam Raimi’s 2002 screen adaptation; focus has shifted to the Green Goblin (a show-stealing Patrick Page, in the kind of performance Tonys are meant to honor). And so a new song has been added after intermission, a vapid, self-conscious disco number called “Freak Like Me,” cynically orchestrated to stop the show with its flashy foolishness; Rolling Stone describes it as “like the Grinch singing Lady Gaga, with an Abba-esque chorus.” They mean that as a compliment.
“The production today,” Taymor recently observed, diplomatically, “has become much simpler.” You can still catch flashes of its high-minded intent, but they’ve been smothered by a shallow, hurried narrative. (See six super villains vanquished in a single musical number!) The show now pokes fun at itself, cracking gags about its steep price tag and the Post, like a bullied kid who has learned that if he laughs along with his tormentors they’ll stop picking on him. Spider-Man has denied the part of itself that once made it unique; it has exchanged its individuality for conformity. If the show, with its (repetitive) flying stunts, is meant to attract middle-class families, this is the despicable message it imparts to their children: learn to fit in, kids, and you’ll make a lot of money.
(Photo: Jacob Cohl)