What a surreal feeling it is to be sitting here with nothing but positive things to say about the spruced up Version 2.0 of Julie Taymor’s Broadway musical, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” It’s unfortunate that the production will always carry the taint of the original version, which I also saw and which theater-goers would do well to separate themselves from emotionally.
On the other hand, “Turn Off the Dark” in its current, almost uniformly great incarnation, probably wouldn’t exist without all of the baggage and controversy of the original. The difference now is, the “train wreck” factor is no longer a draw. Not only is the show a vast improvement over its predecessor, it also stands as one of the most elaborate and impressive Broadway productions committed to stage.â€¨â€¨The monumental shift from Taymor’s original vision to the play’s current form can largely be credited to the newly rewritten book from Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. What’s great about Sacasa is he’s got actual experience with and knowledge of comics in addition to theater, having adapted Steven King’s “The Stand” and written for a few Marvel Comics properties, including an arc of “The Sensational Spider-Man.”
On the most basic level, the original version’s most criticized bits, specifically the “geek chorus” and the Arachne character are either gone or, in the case of Arachne, rendered inconsequential within the larger story. What we’re left with is exactly what the show should have been in the first place: a musical version of Spider-Man’s origin story.
Sam Raimi rejiggered the tale as it was originally told in the comics for his movie and all signs point to Marc Webb doing the same for his own interpretation. “Turn Off the Dark” is yet another example of creative liberties being taken for the new medium, only there’s a musical accompaniment with this one. The big surprise, however, is how well-executed all of the other puzzle pieces feel now that the most problematic elements of the original script have been eliminated.
Reeve Carney continues to be the right choice for a stage version of Peter Parker. He brings just the right mixture of doofiness, charisma and innocence to the role, with a somewhat raw singing voice serving only to complete the package. Oppositie him is Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane Watson. The definitive “girl next door,” Damiano’s Mary Jane is sweet-yet-tomboyish in just the right ways, lovely to the core and possessing a powerful singing voice.
There’s chemistry too. Hearing MJ call Peter “tiger” for the first time, it feels completely natural and in the moment. As Reeve’s Peter obsesses onstage about what the nickname might mean we in the audience sit instead and marvel at how well these two play off of each other. Carney and Damiano have been riding this roller-coaster together for awhile now; the chemistry was there all along, only now there’s a much stronger story to back it up.
It would be criminal not to talk about the production’s strongest performers and not mention Patrick Page, as the Green Goblin/Norman Osborn. Almost all of the extra stage time Aguirre-Sacasa had to work with after stripping Arachne out of the show goes to Page. He’s tremendous, rendered perhaps as a bit more tragic and likable than in the comics. It works though, and it gives us more time to spend with him.
The music is relatively unchanged from what it had been before. A couple of new numbers have been added to take better advantage of Page’s beefed up role, but the songs are what they are. If you weren’t a fan before, that opinion probably isn’t going to change. I would encourage giving them another listen with this reworked production though; the original version left me so horrified that I couldn’t bring myself to appreciate any of it. Hearing those same songs plugged into this new framework… well, all I’ll say is that some are pretty damn catchy.
Of course, the production is also still a Hollywood blockbuster-inspired spectacle, with lots of wire work and elaborate visual effects. This was the strongest aspect of the original play and it continues to be a big draw in version 2.0.
Harbor no illusions, comic book fans: this is still Spider-Man’s origin story rendered as a Broadway musical. The difference now is that it’s a good musical. Great, even. It’s not exactly how you know it, and some elements are likely to enrage the more nitpicky fanfolk, but after seeing version 2.0, I can confidently say this: “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” isn’t just worth your time, it’s a worthy addition to the comic book superhero’s long, enduring history.