I’m a comic book fan and a musical fan. When the Spider-Man musical was announced, I couldn’t help but get excited. As all the bad press accumulated, I knew that there was no way the show could surpass my expectations. Yet, there was no way I could miss the show either. In writing this review, I was torn between evaluating the musical as a fanboy and as a typical musical audience member. Although the fanboy may begin immediately cynical, I thought it was a much-needed perspective, perhaps to balance out the mainstream media’s theatrical bias.
First, let me address how stupid I think the title is. I guess it speaks to the blackout that New York City faces through the second act, but it is counterintuitive and not in a “makes you think” kind of way. In fact, there wasn’t much to think about in the musical. It’s another origin story, slightly modified. For non-comic book fans, I suppose that Spider-man’s origin story is the only one worth telling.
There were several glaring character omissions. Since this is a retcon of sorts, I don’t mind director Julie Taymor leaving out Harry Osborn altogether, though his friendship with Peter Parker is rife with dramatic conflict. In fact, I would have actually preferred for more villains to be left out of the musical altogether. But I suppose that having Green Goblin, a newly created Arachne, and an entire Sinister Six does allow for suffficiently pagentry that Lion King alumna Taymore needed. Yet the inclusion of her version of the “Sinister Six” was problematic for me. Sure, the Sinister Six’s line up is fluid, characters drop in and out all the time. However, there was no reason that Taymor had to create an awful new villain Swiss Miss, a garish silver transvestite reminiscent of Silver Samurai, especially when Mysterio and Doctor Octopus are the very definitions of theatricality. Mysterio is a special effects artists obsessed with illusion! The chorus even acknowledges that Swiss Miss was made up on the spot.
Speaking of the chorus, yes, there is a Greek chorus, renamed the Geek chorus. They serve the dual function of narrating and interacting with the characters from time to time, existing partly within the production and outside of it at once. I thought this was a nice touch. The major draw of the musical is the high-flying trapeze that occurs over the orchestra seating. Hence, I probably had one of the best seats in the house, front row on the balcony. There were enough times that Spider-Man swung up to the platform next to me before running into the exit in the back. Though impressive the first time, it quickly gets old and I stopped appreciating the complexity of the wire flying. In any other dramatic production, it would be the climax, done to great effect. In Turn Off the Dark, it simply got boring. In terms of special effects, I would’ve loved to see more web effects or even some exploding pumpkin bombs. Otherwise put, the Spider-Man musical has nothing much else to offer except the web-swinging and once you’ve seen it, you’ve got little incentive to see anything else.
Now as a musical, songs are typically critical to the performance. I judge my initial impressions on whether I leave the show with a tune on my brain. Maybe I’m just not a fan of rock musicals, but Bono and The Edge should stay out of theater. Many of the songs fizzled, and there were more than a few cringe-worthy lyrics. Perhaps I prefer showtunes for my musical shows; I’m just old-fashioned like that. But rock operas can be done to great effect, as in Rent. Since the songs were nothing special, the performances were also nothing spectacular. There was little opportunity to showcase the talent, with the exception of Arachne, played by T.V. Carpio who has some scene-stealing numbers. Patrick Page, performing as The Green Goblin also added some dramatic flair.
I think my biggest complaint was the lack of comedy or wit. There weren’t enough one-line zingers delivered by Spidey. A song consisting of Spider-Man teasing his opponents would’ve been a perfect. It makes me question whether Taymor or Bono have sufficient exposure to Spider-Man. They sadly missed the essence of Peter Parker’s character and their portrayal is superficial at best. I wonder if writing a review would actually affect the show. People would see it no matter how bad it actually is. Even I went in expecting the worst. Given that we can get all the special effects Spider-Man from movies and other media, what should the musical vehicle offer? Aerial trapeze, check and overdone. But the music is such a big component of a musical that it needed to be the high note of the performance, and that was certainly lacking.