They said it couldn’t be done. After a mere nine years of planning and an unprecedented 183 previews — extending from Thanksgiving weekend until midway between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July — “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” has officially turned on the lights at the Foxwoods Theater. That’s the former Ford and Hilton, now bearing the name of the Connecticut casino; not unfittingly so, as the whole thing remains a $70 million crapshoot. Upon a preliminary viewing back in February, “Spider-Man” was a spectacular mess. The finished version is reasonably improved but somewhat less spectacular.
As you might have heard, “Spider-Man” is a joint creation of Julie Taymor — the miracle worker behind “The Lion King” — and songwriters Bono and the Edge of U2. The enormity of the show’s tech and storytelling problems was bruited about since the first preview, becoming codified following an uninvited mid-winter visit by many of the first-night critics.
Some drastic changes that have been incorporated since then, under the guidance of new contributors including “creative consultant” Philip William McKinley (whose only prior mainstem credit is the Hugh Jackman hit “The Boy from Oz”), book-writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (from the comicbook world) and choreographer Chase Brock (from the contemp dance world). Taymor, who exited the produdction in March, retains credit as co-librettist and for “original direction.”
Several much-discussed flaws — the “Geek Chorus” framing device, extensive stage-time for the Taymor-created spider-woman Arachne, a jaw-droppingly misguided musical number about shoes — are gone, certainly for the better. But they tended to give distinct flavor to the show, and flavor is what “Spider-Man” now lacks.
Tuner proceeded without a technical glitch at a press preview Friday, but there seems to be significantly less exciting flying than remembered. Even so, first-time viewers are likely to be impressed with the aerials, especially the over-your-head battle scenes. Also standing out are the eerily effective scenic design by George Tsypin; a grandly villainous turn by Patrick Page (“The Grinch”), in an expanded role as the Green Goblin; and an attractive performance by twenty-year-old Jennifer Damiano (“Next to Normal”).
Leading the many negatives, though, is the ineffective score: Despite apparent rewrites, this remains the show’s Achilles’ heel. The song list includes four new titles, but to little avail, and the dramaturgy is still muddled, only with more jokes. This is a show that rises to the occasion only when the actors of the ensemble are flying; when people start singing or talking, the momentum — like the boy in the climactic second act song — “falls from the sky.”
Reeve Carney is effective in the title role, but customers should be warned that he doesn’t appear at a quarter of the performances (on a schedule that seems not to be publicized to ticketbuyers). And while he does a significant amount of singing and acting, that thrilling webslinging over your head and up to the balcony rail is, for the most part, not Carney but one of several unnamed actors wearing his costume and mask.
The reported $70 million expense — likedly pushed higher by a three-week closed-for-repairs period earlier this spring — makes “Spider-Man” four times as costly as the typical large-scale Broadway musical. Whether it can generate the “Wicked”-sized grosses necessary to recoup those costs remains the supersized question. But what was a sometimes inchoate mess has, thanks to the post-Taymor fixes, taken a giant leap to mediocrity, which makes for a significant improvement.
Musical numbers: “The Myth of Arachne,” “Behold and Wonder,” “Bullying by Numbers,” “No More,” “D.I.Y. World,” “Venom,” “Bouncing Off the Walls,” “Rise Above,” “Pull the Trigger,” “Picture This,” “A Freak Like Me,” “If the World Should End,” “Sinistereo,” “Spider-Man!” “Turn Off the Dark,” “I Just Can’t Walk Away,” “The Boy Falls From the Sky,” “I’ll Take Manhattan,” “A New Dawn”