Two of my favorite covers for The New Yorker magazine have theatrical themes.The first, conceived by Barry Blitt and dated May 7, 2001, depicts a sullen, grimacing Adolf Hitler, arms folded, sitting in a Broadway theatre among other audience members, all of whom are laughing hysterically at a performance of what is presumably the surefooted musical, The Producers, the mega hit by Mel Brooks that hilariously spoofed fascist Germany and the nazis The second cover, also drawn by Blitt and published in January of this year, is a drawing of a hospital ward in which each of the acrobatic, seriously wounded, bedridden patients is still in his spiderman costume. And though some of the palpable, real injuries incurred during rehearsals for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark were quite serious and required hospitalization, the hazardous plight of the show became an ongoing Broadway joke. In fact, many playgoers earnestly wondered whether the production would ever officially open, especially after its director and guiding force, Julie Taymor, was dismissed.
Spider-Man, Turn off the Dark has, in fact, finally and legitimately opened (after a record-breaking 182 preview performances) at New York’s huge but elegant Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street. And I should report straight away that this comic-book show, which takes itself quite seriously from the start, is most certainly one of the most ambitious productions in the history of the Broadway musical. It took almost a decade to bring it to fruition; and, at a staggering cost of 70 million dollars, it is the most expensive presentation ever to be mounted on a New York stage. Even though the capacious Foxwoods seats more than 1800 patrons, it is a safe bet to predict that the enormous investment will never be fully recouped.
You certainly can see where some of that money went. George Tsypin’s colorfully elaborate cartoon-like sets, Kyle Cooper’s spherical projections and Eiko Ishioka’s florid costumes do provide some visual pleasure and excitement. There is no doubt, in fact, that the show is assuredly a technically satisfying achievement now that the reported problematic computer malfunctions have been remedied. But though the airborne sequences are often impressive, they’d most likely fit more comfortably into a circus arena than a legitimate Broadway house. And, too, you can’t avoid seeing the wires and circuitry that help to keep the bodies in motion. (In the film versions of Spider-Man, you don’t notice any wires in aerial scenes. Those computer-generated flights are certainly one thing that moviegoers can now take for granted.)
The musical’s libretto (by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) follows a teenaged superhero, Peter Parker (a personable Reeve Carney) as he gains the ability to spin webs after an accident in a laboratory. Parker, who performs both as a young teenager and his counterpart, the spider-man, sets out to destroy his nemesis, the violently evil Green Goblin (the impressive Patrick Page) but must first save his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano) from being destroyed by the offending monster. Before her abduction, Peter and Mary Jane express their concern about the bullying that exists in their school and in the streets of the city. And they sing: “Don’t talk, just walk/Going nuts, hate my guts/Get good grades, another shove/Stop being a loser, stop being in love/And why do I need these stupid glasses?/I’d give my life to be/Anyone but me, yeah.” The show’s lyrics are almost consistently naive, flabby and puerile. And by now you’re thinking that Porter, Hart, Loesser, Hammerstein and Berlin can rest tranquilly. In fact, the entire mediocre (and very loud) musical score by Bono and The Edge is, sadly, far from memorable.
During the long stretch before Patrick Page (who, by the way, is an impressive Shakespearean actor) falls from the Chrysler Building (my favorite New York City edifice), you might have given up hope that the show will soar above the level of mediocrity that it so consistently sustained. However, Philip Wm. McKinley, who became the show’s “creative consultant” after Taymor was “let go,” does manage to create a very small degree of legitimate excitement here. And when Page performs “I’ll Take Manhattan,” he succeeds in injecting some energy into the proceedings.
However, it’s far too late by that time for this to become worthy musical theatre. And I should add that mediocrity did not prevent the musical from receiving the now-customary standing ovation, a tribute that was a long time ago reserved for a legitimately grand evening at the theatre.