Spiderman 2.0 The Future of American Musical Theatre Personified

If I was presented with the task of summing up Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark in two words, I would adamantly choose creative and ambitious.  If given a bonus word, I would throw in persistent.  Indeed it was persistence (perhaps plain stubbornness) creativity and ambition that has powered the engine of this production as it steamrolled its way onto Broadway.  More often than not, Peter Parker’s journey to the stage has been the equivalent of a run away train with several derailments.  In 2002, Marvel announced that film and theatre producer Toney Adams would produce a Spiderman musical.  Three years later he would suffer a stroke and die while the creative team, which included U2’s Bono and Edge and Julie Taymor, gathered to sign contracts.  An omen perhaps, but the production found a new lead producer in Adams’s partner David Garfinkle and carried on.  During its push to opening night, the musical has obtained a ballooned budget of over $70 million, received the honor of having the most previews of any Broadway production in history and endured cast injuries, multiple tongue-lashings by the critics as well as creative and cast changes.

Despite the rollercoaster ride during its prolonged preview period, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has prevailed (at least over its former obstacles) and officially opened at The Foxwoods Theatre, located at 213 West 42nd Street, on June 14. The story of Peter Parker aka Spiderman is well-known. He is Marvel’s lead character and one of the most commercial superheroes.  His sagas have been depicted in comic books, newspaper comics, cartoons, televisions and on film with Tobey Maguire in the lead role.   Although the producers and creative team behind this production overcame epic hindrances that would have frozen most shows quicker than a gaze from Medusa, the real encumbrance was creating a musical about a character whose story is so popular.

Spiderman 2.0 begins in school with the Peter Parker reciting his oral book report, the story of Arachne the world’s first with spider, to the class.  Suddenly, Arachne descends from the ceiling ala Cirque du Soleil complete a Greek chorus visually bringing the myth to life. It was then that I realized this adaptation of the Spiderman story was going to be different than any I had viewed or read before.  The introduction of the Arachne myth was a refreshing and integral component.  In the first incarnation of the stage production Arachne was Spiderman’s villain, but in Spiderman 2.0 she is transformed into an ethereal guiding force, appearing when Peter is most in doubt about his gifts and his purpose.  I found the intertwining of Greek mythology to the Spiderman legend to be a marvelous addition to the story.  

The book is a mélange of the comic and film series; besides the insertion of Arachne (characterized by T.V. Carpio), the book brings no surprises to Spiderman’s character, which should be a relief to die-hard Spiderman fans.  Peter Parker (played by Reeve Carney) is a highly intelligent student, with a keen interest in science.  He is tormented at school by Flash Thompson (portrayed by Matt Caplan) and his band of hooligans.  He is secretly in love with Mary Jane Watson (played by Jennifer Damiano) who harbors a desire to be an actress and get away from her home life.   Peter is an orphan and lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben (portrayed Isabel Keating and Ken Marks).  During a field trip to Norman Osborne’s genetics lab Peter is bitten by a genetically altered spider.  From the bite he develops a muscular frame, 20/20 vision and other spider-like abilities including releasing webs from his wrists.  At first, Peter seeks to capitalize from his new powers, but after his uncle is murdered by a thief he is persuaded by Arachne to use his powers to fight evil.  Donning a costume, he becomes his masked doppelganger Spiderman and begins taking down Manhattan’s criminals.  He also gets a job at The Daily Bugle as a freelance photographer catching exclusive photos of Spiderman for EIC J. Jonah Jameson (played by Michael Mulheren) who adamantly believes that the masked crusader is actually a criminal.   Meanwhile, Mary Jane pursues a career in the theatre as a romance with Peter heats up and Norman Osborne (played by Patrick Page) convinced that Spiderman pilfered his research decides to experiment on himself, kills his wife Emily (portrayed by Laura Beth Wells) in the process, goes insane and mutates into the Green Goblin.  As a Green Goblin Osborne manufactures a troupe of similar mutants that he labels the Sinister Six, together they unleash a terror-spree, the likes of which have never been seen, on Manhattan.  Spiderman, who contemplated retirement to protect his loved ones, must now live up to the phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and has a showdown with the Sinister Six and the Green Goblin, who kidnap Mary Jane with purpose of drawing Spiderman out of hiding.  Spiderman defeats the Green Goblin, rescues Mary Jane and all is right in New York City for now.

After viewing Spiderman 2.0 I took some time to brood over what I saw.  I did not see Spiderman during its episodic ramp up period, so I researched articles from critics that had seen both versions.  Most critics did upgrade their marks from an F to a C+, but at best most of them saw the production as a boilerplate musical.  I must admit that I was ambivalent to the musical when first leaving Foxwoods Theatre.  My immediate thoughts summoned another musical that the critics impugned during its run, Taboo, the musical based on the life of Boy George.  It was edgy and ahead of its time.  There were components that worked extremely well and if not for the internal issues and the critic’s harsh reviews, it might have had a longer run.   Although there are parallels in Taboo’s Broadway story with that of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, I firmly believe that a premature closure will not be its fate.  The diligence of everyone involved in this project will not let that happen.  Also, Spiderman is a character loved globally.  If New Yorkers do not want to pay the price of admission, there are plenty of tourists that will.  I propose that as long as our friendly neighborhood superhero is starring on Broadway, this musical will be a stop on any vacationer’s list, ranking just below The Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Times Square.

Like the weaver Arachne, Spiderman 2.0 weaves an intricate, innovative web; bottom line: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark turned Broadway out! Critics, including myself, are so used to the status quo musical paradigms, that it became laborious rating the production using the standard criteria.  There is a tendency to reject something that is new, but there is no doubt that a shift has happened in the theatre, a changing of the musical guard literally and figuratively.   It is trailblazing, pushing the envelope of musical theatre into the 21st century.  But like any pioneer there still bumps along this unforged path.  As a new production, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is greater than the sum of its parts, but there is no denying that certain elements function effectively better than others.  Although the book sticks close to the Spiderman comic, it is mediocre. I am a huge fan of U2 and could not wait to see what Bono and Edge would do, needless to say, it is no Tommy.  Bono and Edge’s imprint is present throughout the music and lyrics, Edge’s guitar licks and Bono’s writing style are beyond reproach.  However, there are numbers that worked to perfection while others were just average.  “Behold and Wonder,” “Bouncing Off the Walls,” “Rise Above,” “If the World Should End,” “Turn Off the Dark” and “I Just Can’t Walk Away” were pleasers with myself and the audience.  When it comes to crafting a musical Bono and Edge are not as great as Andrew Lloyd Webber just yet, but give them time and they will be.  The choreography infused urban movements like krunking during “Bullying By Numbers” as well as hip-hop/African heel-toe dance steps.  The urban choreography was not executed as strongly as other musicals that I have seen that have used these dance styles. 

Overall, the cast triumphantly works with the material they are given, and are the real success story.  It is their execution of the material that is the raison d’être why the elements that do work operate brilliantly. The sets use screens and are stimulating and visually engaging  as a 3D pop-up comic book. But it is my sincere belief that the most outstanding part of the show is Spiderman, or should I say Spidermen and the death defying aerial stunts that he and Green Goblin engage in.  Although Carney plays Peter Parker and Spiderman, there are other stuntmen and dancers that portray Spiderman throughout the show.  The martial arts inspired choreography the dancers perform is enlivening.  As much as your eyes are on stage, your pupils will be fixed on the ceiling, the balcony and all over the theatre as Spiderman uses the entire theatre to fight crime and combat the Green Goblin.     

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a boundless ride that rivals any rollercoaster at Six Flags Great Adventure – a spectacle P.T. Barnum would be proud of.  At best, Spiderman 2.-0 is an exhibition of what American musicals could be – a shining glimmer of the future.  At worst, it is a science experiment that works but still needs some fine tuning.  Personally, I reside comfortably on the fence neither loving it nor hating it completely.  Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is unlike any musical that has come before it, in my opinion it is not a musical at all, it is art on a Broadway stage –pure inspiration and that is the most paramount reason to go and see it.

Photos courtesy of O&M Co.

The Book of Tony

The American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards’ long association with Broadway has created 64 chapters filled with red carpet glamour, humor, special surprises, musical numbers and acceptance speeches.   Last night, the 65th chapter was recorded, and this year’s show was filled with a Mormon takeover, puppet stallions, Spiderman jokes and a whole lot of heart. 

Host Neil Patrick Harris is eons away from his teen surgeon days and his second round at playing master of ceremonies was even better than the first.  Held at the iconic and grand Beacon Theatre, this year’s events started with an irreverent number that pokes fun at the relationship between the theatre and the homosexual community.  Harris informed one and all that the theatre is “not just for gays anymore.”  The number would have come off without a hitch if not for a cue card flub from Brooke Shields after Harris jumped off the stage for a little audience participation.  Cue card-gate aside, the 65th Tony Awards production team must have learned from the Oscars mistakes.  This year’s show was as electric as the marquees on 42nd Street.  Presenters included Alec Baldwin, Robin Williams, Viola Davis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Harry Connick Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson (both Connick and Jackson will be coming to Broadway later this year).  Ghetto jester and actor John Leguizamo and others shared their Broadway moments.   But showcasing to the world the dedication and pizzazz of Broadway is truly what the Tony Awards are all about. Revivals like Anything Goes and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying showed the greatness past American musicals; new productions such as The Book of Mormon, Sister Act, Catch Me If You Can and The Scottsboro Boys presented the inventiveness of future American musicals. 

Although this season presented singing nuns on Broadway, it was South Park fans that were rejoicing.  The Book of Mormon came, performed and conquered, sweeping this year’s awards.  The cheeky musical about religion walked away with nine Tonys including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Orchestrations, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Scenic Design of a Musical, Best Sound Design of a Musical and Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for Nikki M. James who gave an emotional acceptance speech.  The spirit of Cole Porter is alive and the three Tonys Anything Goes won proves why his music is timeless.  The revamped Porter production won Best Choreography, Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for Sutton Foster.  It appears that Broadway was too busy creating new chapters to revisit its past.  How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was the only other musical that was up for best revival, and although they did not win, they did not walk away empty handed.  John Larroquette won for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical.  The story of Frank Abagnale, Jr. has now added music, lyrics and choreography.  Catch Me If You Can has also provided Norbert Leo Butz with his second Tony for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical. 

War was also ubiquitous theme for Broadway’s big winners.  War Horse took the lead and never gave up the reins.  The poignant production about a boy who loves his horse so much, that he enlists in the military and risks his life to bring him home won every category it was nominated for including Best Sound Design of a Play, Best Lighting Design of a Play, Best Scenic Design of a Play, Best Direction of a Play and Best Play.  The woods of South West England was setting for a standoff in Jerusalem, which garnered the award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play for Mark Rylance  who offered jocular commentary about walking through walls.  Frances McDormand delivered a passionate speech upon accepting her Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play.  Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is the personification of the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  His compelling examination of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York was a call for action in the fight against AIDS and gave voice to a mute sector of our society.  The production won Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play for John Benjamin Hickey and Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play for Ellen Barkin. 

After parties are over, websites have been updated and reviews of Sunday’s award show are in.   As Broadway gets back to penning new chapters of the modern theatre experience, I believe the Tony Awards proved why The Great White Way is still profitable during The Great Recession.  There were plenty of memorable moments, but for me the most impressive aspect of the show was Neil Patrick Harris. From his blithe exchange with Hugh Jackman to his final riveting recap of the show, Harris was the Motherf*cker with the Mic and he was wicked!

Photos: Kevin Kane/Wireimage.com