After 10 playing weeks and some $12,500,000-worth of tickets, the attractions of “Spider-Man” are still in the spectacular physical production, and if the audience at Saturday’s matinee preview was not standing and cheering, they still could be described as warmly appreciative. It’s a work in progress, and creator Julie Taymor has been making changes through the preview period, and is reportedly planning to continue to rework the musical numbers (within the framework of the existing music and lyrics). Weaknesses lie with the book, music and lyrics, a kiss of death for most musicals; Taymor and her producers seem to think this a minor flaw, and initial box office returns suggest they might be right.
The Spider-people have compared their situation to a traditional pre-Broadway tryout, with months of changes prior to the Broadway opening; but in most other cases, the major activity is the time-consuming job of removing songs that don’t work and writing replacements that will. With the exception of the opening number (which seems derived from music used elsewhere in the show), the current song-list is identical to preview #1; songwriters Bono and The Edge, who are off on a U2 tour, have indicated that they have not and will not write new songs.
At preview No. 64, the first major aerial sequence of the show, 42 minutes in, was halted by some tech glitches. Once airborne, though, the sequence is impressive, and the second is an amazing aerial fight waged over the heads of the patrons in prime orchestra seats. The second act flights are considerably less exciting, except for one with the resident spider woman and five other flying gals. This one is a visual feast, heightened by a combination of lights, projections, and colored webs.
Story, which follows four nerdy teenagers as they devise the adventures of a teenaged superhero from Queens, is sketchy and ill-formed. Some of the dialogue, by Taymor and Glen Berger, seems ad-libbed on the spot and there are a couple of big holes in the story. (A major plot development centers on photos taken of Spider-Man by Peter Parker, but how does he take close-ups of himself while he is fighting?)
The performers are somewhat smothered by effects. Jennifer Damiano, late of “Next to Normal,” stands out as the embattled heroine; Matthew James Thomas, on as standby to leading man Reeve Carney, was perfectly likable. Otherwise, only Michael Mulheren manages to break through the material.
The music and lyrics are less of a score than an endless and repetitive soundtrack; it is something of a surprise when the second act suddenly provides two effective songs (“Turn Off the Dark,” “If the World Should End”). Two lead guitarists stand on the stage-right apron throughout the performance, often looking bored. Presumably the changes will include intensive surgery on “Deeply Furious,” the spiders-in-high-heels number which is fast developing into musical-theater legend.
Sidebar: Broadway Tryout
Variety has a longstanding practice of reviewing stage shows in out-of-town tryouts. This review is consistent with that, except that “out of town” in this case is in the center of Manhattan.
“Spider-Man” began previews Nov. 28, targeting a Dec. 21 bow. The opening was pushed to Jan. 11, then Feb. 7, and currently March 15. Facing hints that critics were planning to observe the Feb. 7 date, the producers last week protested that the show “will be ready for review when the artists who are creating this show deem it ready.” Variety will run a complete review when the show officially opens.
For the record, despite a recent run-in with the New York City Dept. of Consumer Affairs, there was no visible signage at the Foxwoods (formerly Ford/Hilton) indicating that this was a preview performance and that refunds/exchanges were available.