'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' review: A spectacle stuck in its own web

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"Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark" is not as awful as one is led to believe. It's not awful at all.

It's just not good. 

"Spider-Man" is a spectacle, and visually arresting. And therein is the $75 million question: Is it worthy of Broadway if the musical has no show-stoppers, not one great song despite Bono and The Edge, such insipid dancing it's forgotten immediately and a script that neither has dramatic tension nor funny lines?

Sadly, the answer is yes. It's worth it if people are willing to pay for it. This could have a long run judging by the school buses lining up on 42nd Street on the show's official third night Thursday (June 16). Given the name recognition, the unending hype and that everyone knows Spider-Man, it's a fair bet this could go indefinitely.

The show begins with incredible energy, fueled by school kids thrilled to be at The Foxwoods Theatre on a Thursday night. Cheering greets the orchestra's first sounds. But that electricity only returns when the Green Goblin and Spider-Man zip by as they fly around the theater. In between, there are long stretches where nothing very exciting happens.

After all of this hoopla -- it's Broadway's most expensive musical ever, actors have been hospitalized after cables snapped, previews went on for months and the show closed to revamp -- it was nowhere as bad, apparently, as it was before the retooling.

I say apparently because I waited. Among the baggage this musical carries is that it became the only show in recent memory where critics became so frustrated with the constantly shifting opening night that many just reviewed it. Those reviews were dreadful, and it's understandable if the worst part of what remains was the main part of the original.

That would be Arachne. T.V. Carpio is graceful, suspended in space, as she sings grating tunes in a spooky manner.  She's Spider-Man's conscience, of sorts. Though why he needs one, especially such an avant-garde one better suited to the erstwhile CBGB's on a Tuesday night in 1983, is beyond logic.

Spider-Man has a conscience. He is, of course, the good guy in the story familiar to all. Peter Parker, sweet high school science geek, is bitten by a mutated spider and develops super powers. He uses them to protect New York City from marauding criminals.

"I now have the speed, agility and strength of a spider, which is awesome," Peter says when he wakes up on the ceiling.

That may not be everyone's initial reaction, but Peter is a very smart, and able to understand advanced science as a teenager.

Reeve Carney as Spider-Man has the hesitant, good-guy persona down. He's cute and can sing. But this is the leading role in a major Broadway production, and he doesn't have the stage presence to command the lead. Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano) is lovely.

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But it's Patrick Page, first as Norman Osborn then as the Green Goblin, who steals the show. He is wonderful as the evil scientist and even better as the mutated lizard-like creature. His sinister laugh is terrific, and he seems to be the only person on stage enjoying himself.

Yet as much fun as Page is, he and the rest of the cast take a distant second place to the aerials and the sets. If you enjoy men in Spandex flying over you in a theater, "Turn Off the Dark" is your show. There's no arguing how unique it is to have the actors zipping about over your head, landing in the balcony, shooting thin strips of paper (which doubles for Spider-Man's webs) into the audience.

All of this feels like the work of a visual visionary, and that must be Julie Taymor, the fired director. This sort of theatricality does not just spring fully formed onto a stage. Each set is a work of art, with the black brush lines of comic books writ large. The set with the Chrysler Building alone is fabulous.

But the amazing visuals don't always make sense. Why, for instance, is everyone at The Daily Bugle dressed as if it's 1942? The blowhard editor, J.J. Jameson (the always wonderful Michael Mulheren), talks about how print media is a dinosaur and mentions Facebook. This means it is supposed to take place today, but inexplicably this cast seems to be wearing costumes from "Guys and Dolls."

The villains wear bizarre masks, but none is too scary. That's smart because this is a show that will sell tickets based on parents bringing their children, much as they do to the circus. 

And that's just it. This is a cross between the circus and comic books, as my theater mate, who genuinely enjoyed this, said. For him, that was enough.

But Broadway musical theater -- for those of us who cherish Ethel Merman and Patti LuPone, can tell a Bob Fosse move from a block away and know that Susan Stroman is a national treasure -- should be more.  It should be great songs and sharp dancing.  It should have dramatic tension in the script, not from the audience holding its breath as actors buzz over them.

Photo/Video credit: Jacob Cohl
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