I’ll Take Spidey’s Manhattan

Spider-Man Musical Street

The front of the Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City.

I had the pleasure of seeing Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark at the 2:00 PM matinee show on February 2, 2013 in the Foxwoods Theatre in New York City. I was quite impressed with this musical. Despite all of the negative press surrounding this show from the endless reworking in its preview months to the accidents and mishaps that happened in its early days, the current production seems polished and perfected. I could use adjectives from the Spider-Man comic book titles like “amazing” and “spectacular” to describe this show, and I feel that they would not be adequate enough. It’s really a feast for the senses as so much happens fluidly on the stage and in the air and seats around the theater. I’m not going to ruin any of the surprises in this review, but it suffices to say that you’ll have a different view and experience if you’re on one of the two higher levels in the theater as opposed to the orchestra. Critics be damned; they couldn’t take down this show just like J. Jonah Jameson can’t take down Spider-Man.

From what I’ve read, the plot of the show has evolved many times over the years of its run as if it had been mutated itself by a radioactive spider. I’m not sure who’s really responsible for what in the result, but the story weaves the mythology of Arachne in the first few minutes with the origin story of Spider-Man over the course of the first act. Arachne had a much bigger part in earlier versions, but her role now seems just about right. She is the soul of Peter Parker/Spider-Man and binds herself to him as he questions his powers and responsibility. Arachne’s story gives the musical its titular song; her banishment can be relieved by Peter as her spirit infuses him and helps her “turn off the dark” in her existence and, by extension, his. This isn’t the easiest thing to explain or “get” from the show itself. In many ways, it would
have been wiser to give the musical a better title. I’m just nitpicking here. In the end, I didn’t care what it was called as long as I got to spend that time in the theater with the unique world that enveloped the audience. The first act is more of an introduction to the characters, including Peter, good friend Mary Jane Watson and Norman Osborn. The second act details Osborn’s criminal spree once transformed into Green Goblin and Spider-Man’s reaction to him while struggling with his responsibilities as a crime fighting superhero. This division of the story works especially well theatrically because the second act ramps up every aspect of the show from wire work and action to song choices and staging. It also gives the actor who portrays Norman Osborn/Green Goblin time to get into his elaborate costume and makeup.

When the musical was announced, it was a big deal because of the participation of Bono and The Edge from U2. Other rock stars like Elton John and Green Day have penned musicals with varying degrees of success. I have to hand it to these guys because they’ve written a few standout numbers and plenty of solidly good ones. The musical’s signature song is “Rise Above,” which is also Peter’s motto for both his personal and professional (as Spider-Man) life. “Boy Falls from the Sky” has another special moment for Peter and feels a lot in spirit like “Defying Gravity” from Wicked in terms of expressing individuality and accepting one’s place in the world. There are nice ballads like “No More” and “I Just Can’t Walk Away” and romantic moments when Peter and Mary Jane express their feelings. Green Goblin gets some of the fun numbers like “A Freak Like Me Needs Company” and an “I’ll Take Manhattan” that feels fresh and improvised. “Bouncing Off the Walls” is the most like a U2 song to my ears because it has the manic energy of a song like “Vertigo” and certainly the dancing around like those iPod ads. “Bullying by Numbers” is a good song, but it feels rather creepy to see Peter get beat up and bullied by his fellow high school students. Ironically, the worst song of the musical is probably “Spider-Man”; it just feels cheesy and unnecessary. It would have been better to play the theme from the cartoon — perhaps the version by the Ramones or Michael Buble or both — as people left the theater than to try to pen a new song with that title. Even better than the songs in some cases are the musical interludes in the show, especially the ones punctuated by The Edge’s signature guitar sounds. It all just works together to create a complete musical experience that rock fans and U2 fans alike will enjoy. There are allusions and outright uses of a few U2 hits incorporated into the show that will elicit a few chuckles from those who recognize them.

The cast of the musical is strong in both voice and agility. Role originator Reeve Carney typically portrays Peter Parker/Spider-Man, but we had alternate Jake Epstein. He did a fine job and only strained a little bit on “Boy Falls from the Sky.” Rebecca Faulkenberry as Mary Jane Watson has a sweet voice that works well in the show’s ballads. Much like Epstein, she has to move all over the set and stage a lot. It would have been nice to see and hear more of Katrina Lenk as Arachne, but alas, her part has been cut down over the evolution of the musical. Robert Cuccioli blew me away as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin. He has a voice with a nice timbre that suits his songs in the first act. His appearance while Osborn was distracting in a way because he looks a lot like Craig Ferguson. When Cuccioli transforms into Green Goblin in the second act, his whole personality undergoes a change as well. He hams it up with a glimmer in his eye and a mocking tone that reminded me of Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas. His performance of “I’ll Take Manhattan” and riffing with the audience while Green Goblin plays piano at the top of the Chrysler Building was one of the best moments of the show.

Those familiar with the show’s design and direction know that Julie Taymor (of the musical of The Lion King) was intricately involved with this musical early on and then had a parting of ways later. Regardless of her official involvement, her talents are evident in the creativity of the costumes, set design and comic book look and feel. Perhaps a clue to the mishmash that became the current show, J. Jonah Jameson has a secretarial pool straight out of the cast from Mad Men while referencing Facebook and Twitter. Similarly mixing and matching styles, the Sinister Six of villains that Green Goblin creates have costumes like Carnage or Swarm or an inflatable rig like The Lizard. These oversized inflatable costumes are also used for a wrestler whom Peter pummels and a trio of crooks caught by Spider-Man in one of his first missions. The staging is equally bizarre and larger than life with comic book graphics projected on giant screens and pieces of the set (schoolroom, houses, etc.) drawn in a colorful style that feels more like Spider-Man’s comic origins than the film series. Inventive sets include Peter Parker’s bedroom coming apart around him
and the view from the top of the Chrysler Building looking down toward the street during the climactic battle between Spider-Man and Green Goblin. The staging is big on angular props and backdrops, so the musical feels like it’s always in motion as the sets change fluidly. The costumes are either bland like most of Peter’s and Mary Jane’s wardrobe or elaborate like the silver coats worn by Osborn and his wife and the distinct pieces of the Sinister Six. The best costume of all is Green Goblin’s metallic armor, which I thought that I would hate when I saw pictures of it before the show. The makeup looks like the witch from Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and the armored body reminds me of the costume of Mr. Freeze from Batman & Robin. Fortunately, Cuccioli inhabited that costume and makeup and provided a likable, villainous personality. The Spider-Man costumes are works of art and vary in detail depending on how long Spidey appears in a scene or how much of the costume Peter reveals. I’m surprised that they weren’t selling cheaper versions of the stage costumes at the souvenir stands.  It would be an easy sell for many guys.

Spider-Man Musical Interior

A view of the stage before the curtain rises in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Fans of the Spider-Man comic books have more to enjoy with this musical than those familiar only with the movies. This is a different version of Spider-Man’s origin story in that the spider that bites him is not radioactive but instead genetically mutated. Nevertheless, he gets bit and then transforms. Throughout the show, Spider-Man shoots webbing at crooks and over the audience. It’s a simple but effective illusion in which strands of confetti paper are thrown or shot. I’m not really sure. It looks like they’re shot out like web shooters, and certain audience members can tell their friends that they got webbed by Spider-Man at the show. I went into the show thinking that they only had generic villains and Green Goblin. I was happy to see more villains from the pages of the comics as well as the always irrepressible J. Jonah Jameson — an adversary of Spider-Man if not an actual villain. There’s plenty of Spidey merchandise for the fans, but I only have a small complaint about the story from a fanboy perspective. One of the most familiar phrases connected to superheroes is “with great power comes great responsibility,” a mantra attributed to Peter’s Uncle Ben in offering him sage advice that he takes to heart. Although Peter mentions that line later in the show, Uncle Ben never utters it here. Instead, his message to Peter is to “rise above” and, thus, refer to the musical’s catchy song. Uncle Ben could have easily delivered both lines and made the fanboys happy. I don’t know if they’re setting up a sequel to this musical by including Flash as a character and a song called “Venom” that has nothing to do with the character Venom, but that would be a real coup if they developed a musical to eventually replace this one.

After seeing Mary Poppins last year and its unique wire/rigging stunts, I was prepared for anything with this musical. I had heard about all of the problems with the harnesses and rigging in the theater, so I only expected a few swinging scenes. It’s clearly miraculous what they pull off at every performance, and that has to do with expert wire work, the performers’ athleticism and careful timing. The Spidey actors move around the theater and land on various platforms like they really had the character’s powers. There are seven or eight Spideys in costume in the show as well as the main actor for Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and that’s just necessary for Spider-Man to hit all of his marks and be ready for his next movements. Arachne and Green Goblin have some scenes with wires, too, so there’s a certain circus element with all of the aerial acrobatics, floating and swinging. A scene in which Arachne hovers over Peter’s body on his bed and lifts him up is really beautiful to behold. “Bouncing Off the Walls” is not just a song title, so expect the obvious. I certainly understand how there were accidents with this musical, but I only hope that they’ve perfected the wire work to the point where they could somehow continue this creativity in other stories or musicals. It’s jaw dropping! The primary mechanism for Spider-Man’s movements looks like those camera rigs that fly over football games.

I bought the soundtrack at the show, and it seems like it’s a victim of the evolution of the music and plot. It doesn’t include all of the numbers, and even worse, they’re all out of order. The soundtrack features the original Broadway cast, and two of the songs are partially sung by Bono, including “Rise Above 1” and “Picture This.” The show has been around long enough to merit a reworked soundtrack with the current cast, the Bono songs as bonus tracks and the songs in the proper order. It just ruins the mood and meaning of the songs to have “Boy Falls from the Sky” as the second track on the CD and the milder “Turn Off the Dark” at the end. Some text editing is in order, too, because I saw both “lightning” misspelled as “lightening” and Edgar “Allen” Poe instead of “Allan” in the lyrics. I know the show was under pressure to get out of previews and into real performances, but mistakes like that look sloppy. I’d still recommend buying the CD. Just turn the tracks into MP3s and order them the way they are in the musical. “Rise Above” is a memorable song that’s still running through my head, and there are two versions on the CD.

Right before the curtain call, the music stopped and there was an announcement that there was a “technical difficulty” and that the show would continue after they reset. I thought it might be a staged joke alluding to the musical’s past, but it was, in fact, some kind of “bug” in the performance. My guess is that Epstein wasn’t in position for his final swing over the audience. Regardless, I and everyone else left the theater thoroughly entertained and feeling like we could “rise above” our own problems. Swinging through the streets of Manhattan? That’s another story. We’ll leave that to the web slinger himself.


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