Turn Off the Dark
Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 14, 2011
Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark Music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge. Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger & Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Original direction by Julie Taymor. Creative Consultant Philip Wm. McKinley. Choreography and aerial choreography by Daniel Ezralow. Additional choreography by Chase Brock. Scenic design by George Tsypin. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Costume design by Eiko Ishioka. Sound design by Jonathan Deans. Projection design by Kyle Cooper. Mask design by Julie Taymor. Hair design by Campbell Young Associates, Luc Verschueren. Make-up design by Judy Chin. Aerial design by Scott Rogers. Aerial rigging design by Jaque Paquin. Projection coordinator / additional content design by Howard Werner. Prosthetics design by Judy Chin. Arrangements & orchestrations by David Campbell. Cast: Reeve Carney, Jennifer Damiano, T.V. Carpio, Patrick Page, featuring Michael Mulheren, Ken Marks, Isabel Keating, Jeb Brown, Matthew James Thomas, Laura Beth Wells, Matt Caplan, Dwayne Clark, Luther Creek, with Kevin Aubin, Gerald Avery, Collin Baja, Marcus Bellamy, Emmanuel Brown, Jessica Leigh Brown, Daniel Curry, Erin Elliiott, Craig Henningson, Dana Marie Ingraham, Ayo Jackson, Joshua Kobak, Megan Lewis, Ari Loeb, Natalie Lomonte, Kevin C. Loomis, Kristen Martin, Jodi McFadden, Bethany Moore, Kristen Faith Oei, Jennifer Christine Perry, Kyle Post, Brandon Rubendall, Sean Samuels, Dollar Tan, Joey Taranto, Christopher W. Tierney.
Lest there be any question about this, I’ll be explicit: Spider-Man was better before it was “fixed.” Much better. Smarter, too. Not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. But what began previews in November under Taymor’s close involvement, and saw several delayed openings and high-profile cast injuries before temporarily shutting down in April for retooling, was, despite cavernous flaws, serious theatre for thinking adults. This new version is, at its rare best, an imbecilic entertainment for nap-loving preschoolers.
How could this happen with so much money on the line, so much scrutiny from the public (including corners of it that rarely — if ever — shift their glances toward the theatre), and so much inherent talent and potential? Why, the two things that since time immemorial have collaborated to create more flops than any others: arrogance and incompetence. The two have been intertwined since this Spider-Man’s earliest days, and even now are unwilling to loosen their grip. But one really had assumed that the latter, if nothing else, would have been done away with following the show’s critical vivisection in February, when almost all major establishment reviewers wrote about the show, against the production’s express wishes.
Uh... no. Credit Taymor with the arrogance of believing that she could replicate her globe-spanning success of The Lion King with only a snap of her fingers and a bottomless pocketbook, but she possesses a genuine talent and instinct for theatre. Once removed as both director and co-librettist (she wrote the book with Glen Berger), and respectively replaced by Philip William McKinley (a circus director whose sole major theatrical credit was as the token helmer of the Hugh Jackman vehicle, The Boy From Oz) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (the author of some short-running Off-Broadway plays and some comic books, and a contributor to TV’s Big Love), it was clear the goal was just to get the show open — not actually to make it work.
After all, that would require someone on the creative team with solid grounding in what Broadway musicals are and how and why they work; Bono and The Edge have never written a musical before, and despite each possessing some limited experience with the genre, McKinley, Aguirre-Sacasa, and Berger are not exactly renowned experts. The most expensive show ever, put into the hands of people this inexperienced? The mind reels. And now, so does the show. It certainly doesn’t play.
I saw, but did not write about, Taymor’s version around the same time the other daily critics did. (Talkin’ Broadway understands and respects the creative process, but we are not stupid.) It was brilliant but broken, awash in gorgeous images, compelling and original ideas about the role of fate in even contemporary legends, and some truly execrable dialogue. It did, however, move, swiftly and theatrically, and behave according to a consistent logic all its own. The show needed rewrites (of the limb-numbing score as well as the book) to find its fullest self, but it burst with exciting potential.
McKinley and Aguirre-Sacasa have ensured that the show is now about nothing more than Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) getting bit by a genetically modified spider and acquiring superhero powers, romancing his high-school sweetheart Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano), and fighting the dastardly Green Goblin (the mutated version of the progressive scientist Norman Osborn, both of whom are played by Patrick Page). You can thrill to soaring aerial battles (the technology is designed by Scott Rogers and the sequences are choreographed by Daniel Ezralow, who with Chase Brock did the show’s other hip-hop–hobbled dances) and gasp at George Tsypin’s resplendent sets (the top-down Chrysler Building cityscape is especially eye-popping) and Eiko Ishioka’s elaborate costume plot (particularly for the Sinister Six villains, who also sport incredible masks of Taymor’s own design), all without troubling either your mind or your heart too much.
But hey — at least the show has that flying and, in its final scene, paper webbing that Spider-Man shoots all over the audience. That’s all that matters, right? For $70 million audiences really don’t deserve more? Only with a show that’s suffered so severely would these ramshackle compromises be considered desirable. If all the producers, McKinley, and Aguirre-Sacasa wanted was an empty spectacle, then they’ve got it. But it marches — or perhaps it’s better to say “swings” — arm-in-arm with a cackling indictment of the nondiscriminating theatregoing public that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark so openly, and so depressingly, represents.