Review/Analysis: Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, Foxwoods Theatre NY, 19/02/2013
When? Tuesday 19th February 2013
Where? Foxwoods Theatre, NY, orchestra landing zone
Who? Reeve Carney, Rebecca Faulkenberry, Katrina Lenk, Robert Cuccioli, Michael Mulheren, Stephen Lee Anderson, Isabel Keating, Dan Sharkey, Jake Epstein, Emily Shoolin, Jake Odmark, Dwayne Clark, Aaron LaVigne, Ashley Adamek, David Armstrong, Kevin Aubin, Gerald Avery, Julius C. Carter, Adam Ray Dyer, Drew Heflin, Dana Marie Ingraham, Kourtni Lind, Ari Loeb, Kevin C. Loomis, Kristen Martin, Jodi McFadden, Monette McKay, Jessica McRoberts, Kristen Faith Oei, Maxx Reed, Adam Roberts, Brandon Rubendall, Jennifer Sanchez, Josh Sassanella, Jamison Scott, Whitney Sprayberry, Cassandra Taylor, Brett Thiele, Christopher W. Tierney
In the continuing spirit of Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark’s troubled existence, writing this review has also been troublesome for me. Not my opinion of the show which, as you’ll soon see below, is pretty black and white. No, the difficulty has come in that I have reached the limit of my writing ability; I believe it simply takes a far more skilled wordsmith than I to accurately convey just how desperately, eye-stabbingly bad Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark really is. So I’ve decided to do something a little different to a standard review; instead I will be focusing on the pros and cons of what exactly makes Spidey the… product… it is today – as it enters its third excruciating year.
My Spidey Sense is Tingling (Pros)
- Ambition: Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is a hugely ambitious project and one of a kind. The producers, of which there are seventeen listed in the Playbill, have spared no expense in the staging with many hugely costly effects being used sparingly, rather than bludgeoned on the audience with “wow, look at me” subtlety. In short, Britain got The Lord of the Rings, Broadway got Spiderman. Both are shows which will rightly never see the light of day again, but deserve merit solely for the scale and boundary-pushing that many producers would consider career-suicide. After all, if a cheapo revival of Anything Goes or Evita will do similar box office on a fraction of the price, why bother? Kudos to you all, misguided fools.
- The Sets: There is no denying that the sets are magnificently successful in creating original director Julie Taymor’s now largely decimated vision. The distinct styling of George Tsypin’s ‘work in progress’ comic book is simply gorgeous at times, and brilliantly and strikingly lit by Donald Holder. The Brooklyn Bridge is stunningly brought to life in true ‘pop up’ style, another huge undertaking and enormously expensive set piece which is used just twice, including in the (frankly epic) battle finale. In short, if you are able to ignore the other 99% of things which are wrong with Spiderman, and can sit and make up your own story with your own songs in your head while looking at the lovely scenery – I suggest after several pre-show drinks – then maybe you could enjoy yourself at this show.
- The Visual Effects: Not to be confused with the set pieces, the show boasts some terrific visual effects, if not perhaps the stage magic and trickery I had been expecting. The, again, scarcely used HD screens wheeled around the stage playing the pre-recorded video segments (it’s better than I’m making it sound) was particularly impressive, especially in the Act II ‘chaos’ scene.
- The Aerials/Stunt Performers: It had to come up. At least in classic theatre terms, I have never seen anything like it and Aerial Choreographer Daniel Ezralow and Aerial Designer Scott Rogers each deserve credit for at least this area of work. Yes, Chitty whirred and clunked ominously above the audience for a similar length of time per performance (roughly eight minutes), true, and aerials are becoming more common in mainstream theatre, but some of the stunts are truly remarkable and memorable in the show. The final battle sees Spiderman battling the villainous Green Goblin atop the Chrysler Building, fighting hand to hand in mid-air above the orchestra stalls, before landing on tiny platforms on the mezzanine/dress circle and upper circles, then swooping back down to the stage. Obviously, this requires a huge technical undertaking and I strongly recommend watching one of the many behind-the-scenes documentaries available on The YouTube and the like, to see just how much effort goes into staging each performance. Obviously, the performers are held safely (ish) with thick steel cables which are visible from the moon, so don’t expect miracles. From my seat in the ‘landing zone’ in the orchestra, I could see up to three Spidermans (Spidermen?) on occasion, hiding in the wings or being readied to perform a stunt. In my opinion, these performers deserve credit for putting their lives on the line each show, quite literally.
- The Theatre: The Foxwoods is a gorgeous modern theatre, actually built with the patron in mind. There are ample, clean toilets (although the queuing system used during the interval is poorly conceived, hundreds jumped the queue by entering through the exit while staff looked on) and even mirrors you could see your face in. Free WiFi (I think, we just guessed the password – it’s ‘Spiderman’) and the seats in the landing zone were terrific because for 99% of the show, you can practically lie down in your seat (handy for sleeping through the show). The staff are brutally honest about the show, too – but I don’t want to get anybody into trouble, so I won’t elaborate. The auditorium is huge and it is clear what the producers meant when they said the Foxwoods was the only show which could physically receive Spiderman.
- The Length: Without being at all pithy or sarcastic, I am genuinely delighted that this show isn’t much longer than two and a half hours with one fifteen minute interval. The most comparable show, The Lord of the Rings, ran at upwards of three hours, and for all the good in there, all anybody could realistically think about was getting the heck out of the theatre.
The Green Gobshite (Cons)
- The Book: Frankly it’s a disgrace. A dreadfully disjointed amalgamated mish-mash of the first two Sam Raimi Spiderman films, with some pop-mythology and shockingly poor and sporadic attempts at humour thrown in. The primary antagonist is a Deep South (why?) Norman Osbourne (Robert Cuccioli) who meets and seemingly falls in love with the dreamy “emo” Peter Parker (Reeve Carney – think Andrew Garfield in the superior 2012 reboot). Peter, who is being bullied by big tough and rough boys with less floppy hair than him, is in love with Mary-Jane (Rebecca Faulkenberry – channeling Kirsten Dunst), who loves him back (who wouldn’t? he’s dreamy). Parker is stung by a spider (hilariously lowered down on a string from the rafters) and turns into one overnight and becomes Spiderman. Oh, and there is some very elementary ‘here’s my motive!’ stuff involving his Uncle Ben. No, not THAT one. A change here, a splice there, but the first act is essentially the first half of Spiderman (2002) without Harry Osbourne. The confusion comes with the addition of a completely pointless new character, Arachne, a mythical Spiderwoman, who appears a couple of times floating in a web with mechanical legs. She sings a bit and leaves, and actress Katrina Lenk takes fourth-top billing. Which is probably fair, seeing as she managed to get through the performance without laughing. Norman Osbourne, being the Texan mad scientist type, is conducting crazy tests, messing around with DNA and such. He transforms into the Green Goblin (more on this later, he types with rage). Throughout this, the ‘action’ is interspersed with…
- The Music and Lyrics: Frankly they’re a disgrace. None – not one – of the songs written by Bono and The Edge are good enough. For once, I actually yearned for a jukebox musical and a tune I could remember by the time I’d left my seat. With the song list in front of me, I could not hum one of the songs from the dreadfully phoned-in score. But then, surely there is a huge conflict of interest here? U2, like them or loathe them, are hugely successful and the cynic in me says surely if they stumbled across another “Beautiful Day” during the writing process for Turn Off the Dark, it would be stowed safely away for their next album? In fact, one big hit from the next album would surely eclipse any possible fees, rights and royalties earned from a show that Julie Taymor and other sources have alleged U2 didn’t ever have their heart in? The songs have a repetitive, chiming, jarring nature to them which irritates too. The dreadfully poor ‘Bullying By Numbers’ seemed to consist of people shouting (rapping?) then repeating the phrase ‘Bullying By Numbers’ with cod-Californian beach boy accents. ‘Bouncing Off the Walls’ is similarly repetitive. The rest I barely remember. The only redeeming parts come when nobody is singing; during battles, video vignettes and during the curtain call. The lyrics are obvious, childish and do absolutely nothing to advance the plot through song. Rather, the songs just sort-of happen before another ‘acted’ scene. The music and lyrics could’ve been written for a completely different show. Awful, awful, awful.
- The Acting: Frankly it’s… look I can hand-on-heart say that you will be hard-pressed to pay less for a ticket and see worse. The acting alone is, at times, akin to a secondary school production or mediocre amateur dramatic society. This runs throughout the cast. Does the blame lie with ‘current’ Director Philip Wm. McKinley? It’s hard to say, I didn’t see the show under Taymor’s tenure, but I can say this, the acting is as bad as anything I’ve seen – and that includes The Lord of the Rings. Specifically;
– Reeve Carney looks like he’d rather be anyone else but Spiderman. His acting is beyond wooden. Aside from one minor hissy-fit with Uncle Ben (no, not that one) I can’t remember him showing any emotion in the entire duration of the show.
– Rebecca Faulkenberry sounds and looks the part, if she is perhaps does look slightly older than the role requires. Her delivery though seemed particularly forced and contrived, and she had no rapport whatsoever with Carney on stage. They barely made eye contact.
– Robert Cuccioli was a big disappointment for me, being excellent on the Jekyll and Hyde Broadway Cast Recording. Really struggled with a garbled Southern accent and complete lack of presence (especially as the Green Goblin).
– Michael Mulheren gets J. Jonah Jameson completely, horribly wrong. You know, the editor of the Daily Bugle. He doesn’t look like him. He doesn’t sound like him. He isn’t funny. He doesn’t talk fast. He doesn’t do anything. I’ve got absolutely no idea how this happened.
Whether the actors, the director(s) or the many interfering producers are to blame is unclear. But in short, there is not one noteworthy performance from the ensemble.
- The Singing: Isn’t horrible… but neither is it of a Broadway standard. Reeve Carney has a steady rock belt which is safe if unspectacular. Rebecca Faulkenberry is a touch on the shrill side. Across the ensemble, though, the singing was less than stellar. Due to the need for energetic, triple-threat performers (who often perform stunts, etc) this could be given if…
- The Dancing: …is a mess. In the opening ensemble scenes I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Some of the loosest, messiest dancing I’ve seen on Broadway and again, with no real excuse. It got no better.
- Laughably Bad Moments: There are a shed-load of these, the aforementioned spider sting, and Spiderman boxing an inflatable blow-up doll in the middle of the stage (yes, seriously, Spiderman boxing an inflatable blow-up doll in the middle of the stage) were my personal favourites.
- Just Plain Bad Moments: I’ve mentioned the musical numbers are universally dreadful. As are the acted scenes. But the Green Goblin’s character in particular is a train wreck in green tights. He is given the role of comedy Panto villain; breaks the fourth wall, is put on hold when calling up to make death threats, etc. I can hand on heart say, I don’t think I heard a single person laugh at any of the criminally poor attempts at humour. Why is the Green Goblin playing a piano atop the Chrysler Building? Why is he able to create “Swiss Miss”, a woman made of knives, by blending human DNA with… knives? Why does a snippet of U2’s “Beautiful Day” play? A treat for all the hundreds of U2 fans in the audience sickened by what they have heard so far? Why does the (rather good) previous actor to play the role, Patrick Page, still appear in the second act video vignettes, despite Cuccioli joining the cast eight months ago? Why at one point was I watching a guy dressed like a bee, a girl dressed like a Swiss Army Knife, and a guy with a giant prosthetic Dinosaur head on running around in circles on the stage?
- The Show Doesn’t Know It’s Bad: I’m under the troubling impression that those involved with Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark are actually unaware just how poor a show it is. It seems the show is now ‘locked down’ – i.e. no further changes will ever be made to change the mile long list of problems. If I were a producer of Spiderman and I’d invested $Xm into the show’s success, I’d be demanding improvements, even at this stage. Similarly, if I were a backer I’d be trying to get the hell out of there. Spiderman is well on its way to dying a slow, but inevitable death at the Foxwoods. The show is at TKTS for every single performance, and the show I attended was by no means full. Heavily discounted tickets are being sold on the show’s official website and the show is, allegedly, running at a sizable weekly deficit. In short, it’s a sinking ship – and nobody cares. They are ‘happy’ with the final product – dreadful as it is – and nothing more will be done until it crawls to a close either this year or next.
- How much?: A minor gripe but the price of merchandise is absolutely reprehensible. $40 for a wafer thin t-shirt; $25 for a brochure (compared to the $10 at The Phantom of the Opera). They are even charging children upwards of $30 for a printed photograph in the lobby with ‘Spiderman’. Absolutely scandalous.
And to summarise:
Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is a rotten show which is offensive to fans of Broadway musicals and Spiderman. Flawed in nearly every single department, you would be better off watching the films, buying a comic or seeing anything else on or off Broadway. I can’t quite believe how poor the show was, or how it is still running.
And now I’m off for an Uncle Ben’s (yes, THAT one)
– Harry Zing