Review: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

Spider-Man 2.0 is a notable improvement on the disastrous original.

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  • WE SURE NEED ANOTHER HERO Carney, right, exchanges blows with villainous Page

    WE SURE NEED ANOTHER HERO Carney, right, exchanges blows with villainous Page.

  • Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

    Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

  • Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

    Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

  • Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

    Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

WE SURE NEED ANOTHER HERO Carney, right, exchanges blows with villainous Page

WE SURE NEED ANOTHER HERO Carney, right, exchanges blows with villainous Page.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

"Mutate or die!" is the Green Goblin's threat-cum--rallying cry at Foxwoods Theatre, a sentiment that has likely become a grim mantra backstage at Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. As most of the solar system knows, the legendarily woe-plagued show has had a long, costly and media-saturated journey from its disastrous first preview last November through agonizing weeks of injuries, technical snafus, cast departures and vicious gossip. The multipanel ka-pow! came in February as an avalanche of premature reviews from impatient critics declared the $60 million hybrid of rock, circus and comic-book visuals a zany mess at best and at worst—well, the worst musical in history. Something had to change.

Director and book cowriter Julie Taymor's departure in mid-March was followed by a month of reworking the story and action sequences—indications that the producers wanted to make Spider-Man more than a faulty, nonsensical tourist attraction. So here we are. Spider-Man has risen and fallen for 183 previews; its DNA has been diced and spliced; the ultimate mutation has occurred; and the monster is frozen in its final state. What can we say about this marvelously morphing musical?

It's a hell of a lot better. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is now a coherent and mostly enjoyable entertainment for children and adults, albeit one still saddled with Taymor's vestigial nuttiness and freshly dug plot holes all its own. On balance, playwright and comic-book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and director Philip Wm. McKinley deserve kudos for sifting through the turgid welter of arty pretension and narrative confusion that Taymor left behind in the spring, and finding a genuine story.

It helps to have seen Spider-Man 1.0 to appreciate how vastly improved the material is. Aguirre-Sacasa and McKinley eliminated the Geek Chorus, the idiotic framing device that allowed Taymor to muddle the Spider-Man origin story with her tacky gloss on the myth of Arachne (still intensely rendered by T.V. Carpio). And they reduced Arachne's role, making her more of a spirit guide to Peter Parker (Carney) than a supervillain and mystic love interest. They took the two strongest action sequences, which Taymor had foolishly stuffed into the first act, and spaced them evenly throughout the evening.

It's the cuts and additions to the book that have the strongest effect, though they didn't cost millions of dollars—or broken bones—to create. We finally care about these characters, their pain, their hopes. They are recognizably human, a condition that the previous Spider-Man palpably disdained.

Taymor's vision was perversely lacking in humor, romance and any love for humanity (specifically, New Yorkers), qualities that the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies had in abundance. Taymor seemed almost contemptuous of shy but plucky science nerd Parker and the girl next door for whom he pines, Mary Jane Watson (Damiano). Taymor had so little interest in the Green Goblin, she killed him off in the overlong first act, and then made the second act all about her avatar, misunderstood artist Arachne—who inexplicably possessed godlike powers over technology and perception.

Junking all that indulgent, it-was-all-just-a-dream hogwash, Aguirre-Sacasa smartly places Parker front and center at the beginning, so we establish an instant rapport with him. Elsewhere, the new book allows the characters to breathe through believable, more nuanced dialogue. Parker and Mary Jane have a spark of sexual chemistry. There's affection between reckless geneticist Osborn (Page) and his wife, Emily (Laura Beth Wells). All these deft rewrites give the characters a dimensionality that was depressingly absent in Taymor's joyless, pseudo-mythic attempt to give a comic-book adventure the heft of Greek tragedy.

But while you won't find yourself bored and bewildered at this Spider-Man, flaws stick out. At the end of the first act, as Parker is romancing Mary Jane with the jaunty tune "Picture This," Osborn is in the midst of a dangerously rushed experiment on himself. The sequence builds to an explosion that kills Emily and transforms Osborn into the Green Goblin. Parker sees the explosion from across the river (forced, I know) and leaves Mary Jane to investigate. The first act ends with Spidey swinging into the lab where, presumably, he will encounter the Goblin after intermission. But when the second act begins, Parker makes no mention of the explosion or what he thinks may have happened to Osborn (who, don't forget, is Parker's idol). The plot thread dangles.

Such narrative knots are less bothersome, however, than the score by Bono and the Edge, of which only half the songs are engaging on a musical or lyrical level. Several numbers could easily have been cut to reduce the 160-minute running time and allow for more narrative connective tissue. The best songs—"Rise Above," "If the World Should End" and "Boy Falls from the Sky"—are outnumbered by generic rockers with sloppy, vague lyrics.

So the final mutation of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is not a multidisciplinary breakthrough, as Taymor hoped; it's just a musical. Likewise, Peter Parker may have superpowers that let him fly around New York on spiderwebs, but at the end of the day, he's just a kid.

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Foxwoods Theatre. Music and lyrics by Bono and the Edge. Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Dirs. Taymor and Philip Wm. McKinley. With Reeve Carney, Jennifer Damiano, Patrick Page. 2hrs 40mins. One intermission. Complete venue and ticket information

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