Friday, December 24, 2010

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark Musical Review

I find myself in a difficult position reviewing this musical; not only do I have a comic book background, but I also have a musical theatre background. I must, therefore, look at “Turn Off the Dark” from these two angles.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

Peter Parker: Reeve Carney (u/s Matthew James Thomas)

Mary Jane: Jennifer Damiano

Arachne: Natalie Mendoza

Norman Osborn: Patrick Page

The Geeks: T.V. Carpio; Mat Devine; Gideon Glick; Jonathan Schwartz

I will keep all commentary pertaining only to the musical. Let’s just say it was a great (albeit a little depressing) day with a lot of little side stories that I could share with you.

I wanted to stake out the theatre before the actual show time so that I would know where the stage door was (after Broadway shows, devoted fans may desire to stand outside of the stage door and wait for the actors to come outside and sign the playbills). I found what I thought was the stage door (oh, the sorrow I would encounter) and my friend and I ventured inside the vestibule just to check out the entrance of the theatre. Upon entering, I saw that Reeve Carney would NOT be coming on for the matinee show. Instead, we would be seeing Matthew James Thomas. I was already slightly disappointed because I wanted to see the show in all its glory.

OK, let us now fast forward to the show. The curtain for the show (as some friends of mine saw via picture message) was amazing. It shows Spider-Man, a falling Mary Jane, and Green Goblin. The curtain was raised and the show began. If it was not clear by the fact that Bono and the Edge have been constantly advertised as having composed the music, the first notes and the rockers 5 feet away from me (one of which being Reeve Carney’s brother) made it clear that this was going to be a rock-musical, in line with “Rent” and “Next to Normal.”


The show begins with MJ hanging from a fantastically constructed bridge and Spider-Man running towards her. She falls and we then find ourselves flung into the past, before Spider-Man ever existed. Three geeks make their way from the audience to the stage and this is where our show begins. These geeks, along with a sister of one who will be the camerawoman, will tell our story. They are the fourth wall. They know Spider-Man’s history and want to make a movie of the best Spider-Man story ever. One geek makes the erring statement that Spider-Man was the first person who showed Spidery characteristics. Miss Arrow (the female geek) corrects this statement.

Arachne was the first. Here is our second story. Arachne, a skilled weaver, is a heroine in ancient Greek/Roman mythology. She gets into a fierce competition with Athena/Minerva, the goddess of weaving. While Arachne and her finished product obviously win the competition, Athena will not allow this and destroys Arachne’s work. Arachne, not wishing to live in a world where she is not allowed to make her own art, hangs herself. Athena then changes Arachne into a spider, so that she may still weave. Ovid tells this story in his “Metamorphoses.”

The first technical difficulty that I experienced in this show occurred during Arachne’s number (“Behold and Wonder”). Women were swinging in time like pendula and one woman’s tether was not working properly and a stage hand had to come out and help.

The first we see of Peter Parker is in a Latin class, giving a report on Arachne. Peter gets in trouble with the class for inadvertently reminding the teacher that there is a paper due. Peter then gets beat up in a number called “Bullying by Numbers.” After school, we see the similarities between Peter Parker and Mary Jane as they walk home together and they sing “No More.” There is then a field trip to Oscorp (“D.I.Y. World”) and Peter gets bit by that fateful spider.

Peter then shows off his new powers in the song “Bouncing Off the Walls.” He fights Bone Saw, but there is no robber. Instead, somebody car jacks Flash Thompson, Flash yells for help but Peter ignores him. Alas, Uncle Ben comes running out of the house to stop the car-jacker but gets hit and killed in the process. Arachne then tells Peter to “Rise Above.” Meanwhile, back at Oscorp, the military is putting the pressure on Norman in the number “Pull the Trigger.” The largest technical problem happens around here when a Spidey gets “stuck” (I believe off-stage, as I could not see anything). An announcer came on saying they were going to pause to be sure that the stuntman was ok. It was unclear what happened, but I’m sure they wanted everyone set before the next scene began. Peter and Mary Jane have a close moment as Norman and Emily talk about the step they are about to take in “Picture This.” The Green Goblin is born (“I’ll Take Manhattan”) and is quickly subdued.


Act II opens with the geeks and the citizens of Manhattan singing about the exploits of Spider-Man (“Spider-Man Rising”). Arachne returns and sings the shows namesake “Turn Off the Dark” in an elaborate dream sequence with Peter. Peter, ever the slacker, misses MJ’s show and both he and MJ sing about the possibility of the two of them in “Walk Away.” Peter gives up Spider-Man, Arachne is angry (“Think Again”), the Sinister Six are born (“Sinistereo”), and Arachne gets even MORE angry (“Deeply Furious”).

When a blackout hits NYC, Peter starts rethinking his decision to end his time as Spider-Man and, after proposing to MJ a day before, tells her that they cannot be together. Mary Jane explains that when a pair truly is meant to be together, they should not waste it (“If the World Should End”). MJ is kidnapped and Peter sings the only released song “The Boy Falls From the Sky.” The show returns to the beginning (ring composition), Arachne breaks the fourth wall, and it ends with the song “Love Me or Kill Me,” sung by Peter, MJ, and Arachne. Here occurred the third and final technical difficultly, where Spidey’s web was not taught and a stagehand had to come out and fix it.


If you are confused as to the plot of this musical, I am probably to blame. There are certain details that I just do not want to reveal in hopes that you may someday see the show.

For the remainder of this review, I will go through several categories, giving both my thoughts and my grade. At the end, I will give my overall grade for the show.

STORY: The story is pretty strong. The book (ie. the script) was written by Julie Taymor, so it has a pretty solid foundation. “Turn Off the Dark” pulls in moments from the movies, comics, and incorporates original concepts. Taymor also pulls in mythology, intertwining Greek mythos with Spider-Man mythos. As one can infer from the summary above, there are three stories going on throughout the musical: The Geek Chorus tells us the story from the outside; Peter Parker, et al. are performing the story to us with no interaction with the Geek Chorus; Arachne is a separate story which soon begins to weave its way through the Spider-Man story and then breaks the fourth wall by addressing the Geek Chorus. Arachne is like a patron goddess to Spider-Man (unbeknownst to him) and becomes angry when he does not treat his powers seriously. Arachne is also trapped in a limbo that is painful for her and she believes that Spider-Man could ultimately save her.

The book itself is average. It is not astounding, nor is it below par. As with any play or musical, there are odd moments or lines which seem out of place. Spider-Man is not given any sarcastic remarks which is strange but did not quite hit me until I started thinking about it. I seemed to be the only one clapping when Emily Osborn exclaims, “Your scientists have all quit. Lee, Ditko, Romita, and Straczynski, too!” Kudos for the nod!


MUSIC: As I stated above, this was a musical with a driving rock beat. That said, this was no Iron Maiden. Just as with “Rent” and “Next to Normal,” there are powerful, upbeat songs, and there are songs that really showcase the actors’ talents with a slow-moving melody. The only song that I did not really like, nor did I think it belonged, was “Deeply Furious.” Spiders talking about shoes, putting said shoes on, and singing, “Can you resist the spider’s kiss can you resist…” did not really work for me. “No More,” “Rise Above,” “Walk Away,” “If the World Should End,” and “The Boy Falls From the Sky” were some of my favorites. It’s really no surprise knowing that Jenn Damiano sang in the majority of those!


CHARACTERS/COSTUMES: I know that this is a big category for many of you comic fans. Many of the characters were exactly as you would have pictured them: Peter is nerdy and shy with MJ; MJ is ever confident and free; Flash is a bully. Norman was a departure. Here we have a southern gentleman (really, he had an accent) and a man who is easily bullied. This is not the strong, over-bearing father that we know and love. His wife is his partner in his scientific exploits and her death (ala Spider-Man 2) is the catalyst for his change. Green Goblin receives all the pithy comebacks that Peter/Spider-Man never had. GG is the Two-Face of the Tim Burton “Batman”…campy. Oh, and there is no Harry!

The costumes of the characters were not ordinary, but had a rock-twist to them. This rock-twist also made its way to the hair and makeup of the cast as well. Peter and MJ were particularly ordinary, but Flash and his gang looked like they were going to a Green Day concert, and Osborn and his scientists were wearing something Flash Gordon may don. Overall, I got used to the costumes used by the citizens and I approved of the fact that they balanced the craziness of the villains.

Once Peter actually BECOMES Spider-Man, there is a sequence where he starts attacking goons and purse thieves. The first bad guy one sees is Hammerhead and his posse. These costumes are highly cartoonized, giving the effect of a character that has literally leapt off of the pages of a comic book. For the most part, this effect is seen with all the villains, perhaps with the exception of Green Goblin (in the accident, it appears as if Osborn has actually been disfigured, thus the need for a costume to blend in with his…blemishes). The villains, and other side characters, usually had larger heads in order to give that caricature-feel. Carnage, Electro (whose costume and effects I thoroughly enjoyed), Lizard (it was a cartoon man who could inflate a lizard…imagine someone with a ducky inner tube on who suddenly decided to inflate the ducky), Swarm, Kraven (the lion on his chest moved), and Swiss Miss. Ah, yes, Swiss Miss. I recall this stirring up a lot of controversy in the beginning. All the male geeks shout, wondering who this is. Miss Arrow calmly explains that she made her up. I was not a huge fan of Swiss Miss, despite the fact that I accepted that she was not being forced upon unsuspecting viewers as a true Spidey villain when she was not. Perhaps my dislike stems from the fact that it is a man in the costume rather than a woman. Hello, Mary Sunshine (“Chicago” reference).

Overall, the characters and costumes were good, albeit occasionally strange. It may help to realize that Julie Taymor also directed “Lion King” on stage and made several of the head pieces for the actors in “Turn Off the Dark.”


SETS/STUNTS/EFFECTS: Ah, yes, the meat of the show! To say that this was not a show which would dazzle and feed your senses would be a terrible lie. It is spectacular! While at times one could say that he/she was over-stimulated, there were really great moments throughout. I simply cannot describe the set for fear that I would not do it justice. Bridges fold out, a train moves across the skyline, Spider-Man literally jumps off the walls in the musical number “Bouncing Off the Walls,” screens move which give different images or even play movie sequences (I sat watching a movie for what seemed like 5 minutes, at one point), and skyscrapers give different perspectives, move, and give an overall comic feel. The stunts and effects add to this feel and totally immerse you in the story.


CHOREOGRAPHY/STUNTS: I suppose I could have put this above, but I believe that it deserves its own category. While there were few dance numbers, the overall choreography was well-done. The Spider-Men move as one and the dancers do creative things in order to get across a particular action or movement. The high-flying stunts were incredible! This show really involves the audience. Several times a Spidey would land in the balcony, and at least once a Spider-Man was close enough for me to touch! Spidey flies all over the place and even fights the Green Goblin over the audience.

However wonderful these stunts are, one must never forget how dangerous they can be as well. There have been four injuries in this show so far. It seems like without risk there is no reward, but I certainly hope that this is the last injury we see.


CAST: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the casting. As I stated several pages above, I was disappointed that I would not see the originally casted Peter Parker (I later found out that Reeve Carney does not like to perform in matinees). From what I have seen of Carney, I must say that Matthew James Thomas did a fantastic job and is probably better than Carney. Thomas really fits the role and has a better all-around voice than Carney. Coming into the show, knowing nothing, two words gave me faith: Jennifer Damiano. Jenn has previously been in “Spring Awakening” and “Next to Normal.” I trust in Jenn, and she certainly did not disappoint! She added depth, talent, and style to the role, as well as the show. Patrick Page did a great job, even though I did not like the particular characterization of Osborn. I was amazed when Page hit a ‘brown note’ in “I’ll Take Manhattan.” He certainly has the acting chops and could change his character if there were ever re-writes. Natalie Mendoza as Arachne was an inspired choice, given the fact that she was in “Lion King” on Broadway. Her songs are the most distinct of the musical and demanded a singer who could pull it off.


I could go on and on, but it seems I have droned on long enough. Did I enjoy the show? Yes. Was it visually spectacular? Yes. Can it be in a league with “Rent” and “Next to Normal?” No. Does it bring the comic to life? I would say so, yes.

Overall Rating: 7/10

I’m sure that everyone’s experience will be different. A mere four shows after I saw it an actor fell 30 feet. I have to say, that the majority of people in the audience were there just because it was Spider-Man. The average Joe would not probably be able to tell me about the back-story of Spidey (without referencing the movies) nor would be able to tell me who Jennifer Damiano is!

I hope that you get a chance to see it, as many things are too difficult to explain to someone with closed eyes. I, myself, hope to see it again in the spring (if it is still going) for two reasons: first, I have never seen a Broadway show in Previews and I would be interested to compare it with the final product; secondly, JENNIFER DAMIANO! There is a long and sorrow-filled story which I will not go into here, but I hope to finally meet Ms. Damiano the next time that I see the show!

I hope that this review was insightful and helped minimize some of the fear and distaste you may have had.

Ex animo (and a very Merry Christmas!),

1 comment:

  1. Stella -- Thanks for this. It is the first review I've read that makes me think the show might actually have much good in it... I don't have the wherewithal to attend Broadway shows, but it makes me at least think I would pay for an Original Cast Album, should one eventually be released. I'm glad you had the chance to see it and enjoyed the day.

    The Arachne storyline makes sense the way you recap it, and actually sounds something like what JMS did in his run, regarding Spider-Man and his archeytpal predecessors and current, animal-totem villains. Sounds like learned and provocative stuff.

    It doesn't sound as though Uncle Ben's death has as much to do with Peter's decision to become Spidey as in the classic origin, but I guess I can see how it still functions as something he has to "rise above."

    The images of the costumes put me off, but if you say they work in context I'll take your word for it! :-)

    One question: To what does the title refer? What does it mean? Does it have something to do with the blackout that you mention in Act II?

    Anyway, thanks again for an intriguing review!