After suffering multiple delays over financial difficulties and safety concerns, “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” finally turns on the lights with its Broadway debut in February. But the show is currently conducting preview performances for audiences, and CBR News attended one such showing on Sunday (January 9). While the preview status means that the production is still working out some kinks, we saw more than enough to report without hesitation that “Turn off the Dark” is everything you heard it is and more — which is to say that it’s awful.
“Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” begins in media res as theatergoers watch their friendly neighborhood webhead (played by numerous aerialists) run in slow motion towards a captured Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano), left dangling over a bridge with what we can imagine is a disturbingly beautiful view of the greater New York City area. Before Spider-Man can rescue his longtime love, the story leaps to an unknown location and time as a quartet of geeks (credited as “the geek chorus” an overt homage to the commentating chorus of classic Greek theater) debates over the webslinger’s origins. It’s through this sequence that the audience first learns of Arachne (T.V. Carpio), the spider-goddess responsible for turning Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) into New York’s number one superhero.
From weak performances to laughable music numbers, nearly every single problem facing “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” stems from its convoluted story. Director Julie Taymor and Glen Berger wrote the book, providing audiences with a story that’s as difficult to follow as it is disrespectful towards Spider-Man’s established character. Deviations from Marvel lore are to be expected;Â this production is meant for the mainstream masses, not the Wednesday Warriors, after all, and nearly every single comic book adaptation goes through its fair share of changes. But the musical’s creative departures are both arbitrary and insulting towards Peter Parker’s core beliefs.
Take Swiss Miss, a new female villain created by Taymor specifically for “Turn off the Dark,” as an example of the former: when the character marks her first appearance, one of the members of the geek chorus asks another: “Who is that?” The response he gets from a fellow geek, who is narrating this portion of the story? “Oh, I just made her up.” That’s the only explanation that Taymor can muster: she just made the villain up. There’s no other reason to include Swiss Miss, as her character contributes virtually nothing towards the show’s forward momentum. Beyond her admittedly stunning costume — a vast array of spinning blades and other sharp objects — we learn absolutely nothing else about Swiss Miss. She is, in a word, pointless. And so it goes.
But there’s no character that better symbolizes the show’s creative misfires than Arachne. She is both needless and insulting. Her story is revealed through the geek chorus as well as a book report written by Peter himself: in Ancient Greece, a young woman attempted suicide after scorning the gods, but was resurrected by Athena and subsequently turned into a spider-goddess. (That’s the gist of the story, at least, as Arachne’s origin is completely botched by the swift-talking geek chorus who themselves represent yet another character inclusion that completely distracts from the story, an especially ironic failure considering that their sole reason for existing is to provide clarification and commentary on plot points.) Arachne is directly responsible for Peter’s transformation into Spider-Man, providing him with the key radioactive spider-bite as well as his red-and-blue tights — because, as Taymor’s book rightly points out, there’s just no way that a teenage boy can sew his own costume; a Greek goddess providing it for him makes much more sense.
Although she’s largely absent throughout Act 1, Arachne drives all of the action in the show’s second half. Her main motivation: convince Peter Parker to give up his mortal responsibilities and join her in the Astral Plane so that she may be freed of her “curse.” Her actions result in one of the single most deplorable Spider-Man story-lines of all time. At this point in the show, Peter has taken his cues from “Spider-Man 2,” deciding to hang up his tights for a simpler life with Mary Jane. In an effort to shake him back into action, Arachne sets the entirety of Manhattan ablaze with the help of the Sinister Six and her “Deeply Furious” furies. Peter isn’t immediately moved by the chaos, which is okay, considering that hesitation is a key component of his character. Well, it would be okay, save for the fact that he hides out from the carnage inside of his apartment for at least one week, and still isn’t motivated into action until a kidnapping provides the necessary wakeup call. Peter’s decision to save the day isn’t driven by his need to take great responsibility for his great power; it’s driven by his continued obsession with Mary Jane.
In fairness, actress T.V. Carpio is actually quite good as Arachne. Her voice is haunting, her range is impressive and her presence is undeniable thanks to elaborate costuming and her natural charisma. Carpio almost rises above the material she’s given to work with, but the character and the stories she inspires are so poorly conceived that Arachne can’t be considered as anything but a bold and monumental failure.
Reeve Carney, on the other hand, falls flat in his performance. His Parker is nerdy but humorless, a thinly written character that belts out the occasionally impressive vocal emotion. As far as main characters go, Carney’s Peter is as forgettable as they come. Not as forgettable as Jennifer Damiano’s Mary Jane, who is such a non-factor that she’s barely worth mentioning.
Patrick Page as Norman Osborn is both the only actor other than Carpio remotely close to transcending the book as well as the only villain other than Arachne to receive any kind of depth. (Indeed, all other members of the Sinister Six are without dialogue.) You’ll be shocked to hear “Turn off the Dark” takes dramatic license with Osborn: he’s portrayed as sonless — that’s right, no Harry — and, from the sound of it, he’s a red-blooded Texan scientist. As Green Goblin, he’s a genetic nightmare consisting of bat and snake DNA, among other animals. But despite some truly bizarre deviations from the source material, or perhaps even because of it, Page turns in a wildly enjoyable performance as Osborn. He revels in the ridiculousness of his situation, providing audiences with the only truly earned laughs in the entire musical and delivers the high point of the musical with his last appearance in Act 1. Attempting to justify the character’s choices and story direction is a pointless exercise; just go for the ride and enjoy Page’s Osborn for what he’s worth.
None of this even mentions the music and lyrics provided by Bono and The Edge. The U2 duo’s work here, like Carney and Damiano’s, is utterly forgettable, save for the catchy main riff from “The Boy Falls From the Sky.” But other “show-stopping” numbers like “Sinistereo” and “Deeply Furious” stand out for their great use of effects, costuming and choreography, not because of Bono and The Edge’s effort. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Bono production without an actual U2 track making its way on stage, would it?
“Well, what did you expect,” you say. “This is a Spider-Man musical. Of course it was going to be bad.” That would be true, if not for the fact that there are some legitimately impressive elements to “Turn off the Dark.” Despite how ridiculous the costumes look on paper, they actually work tremendously well in the context of the show. Yes, even Swiss Miss, in all of her one-dimensional glory. The Lizard’s transformative costume is a lot of fun, too, and the super-deformed Kraven earns a genuine laugh on his first appearance. The costuming for every character, really, is great. The set design is also a marvel: Parker walks and swings seamlessly from location to location as the background folds and unfolds like origami to reveal and discard different areas of New York. A good chunk of the astronomically high production budget must have gone into set design, and the glorious results speak for themselves.
Then we have the aerial stunts to consider. Even if the story isn’t enthralling, it’s impossible not to get invested in the various performers swinging above the audience from multiple angles and heights. The various Spider-Men are absolutely excellent in their acrobatic and aerial work, as are the other performers who get involved in these action sequences. It’s a breathtaking experience to be sure, though in fairness, it’s difficult to determine whether or not the increased heart rate is due to technical excellence or the show’s extensive history with actors getting injured.
Perhaps the most frustrating element of all is that “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” did not have to be bad. There are some truly talented performers in the cast (even if only two of them truly shine through), the set design is brilliantly conceived, the costuming is fabulous and the stunt-work produces an appropriate level of anxiety. But the music is forgettable and the story is remarkably horrible. If those are the only two core elements weighing this show down, doesn’t that mean a good Spider-Man musical was possible? With a better book and score — which means, really, no Taymor, Bono or The Edge — it’s possible, likely even, that “Turn off the Dark” could have been both a critical and commercial success. As it stands, the show is aiming purely for the latter. That may be good enough for producers, but for both comic book fans and mainstream audiences alike, it’s nothing but a waste of time and money. Check it out if you can get free or supremely cheap tickets. Otherwise, avoid, avoid, avoid.