The woman next to me drawled, “Well, something’s got to go wrong.” Then the producers of Spider-Man: Turn off The Dark, Michael Cohl and Jeremiah J. Harris, appeared beside the stage of the Foxwoods Theatre on New York’s 42nd Street. “Welcome to Spidey 2.0,” said Cohl, joking this was the notoriously troubled, delayed and disaster beset musical’s 146th preview.
The rewritten Spider-Man’s official opening is not for another month, but last night, at its first preview, Cohl acknowledged a certain inevitable presence in the audience. “Welcome ladies and gentlemen and uninvited critics.”
At $65 million (£40 million), the most expensive Broadway show ever made was originally supposed to open in February last year. But that was postponed five times after the show failed safety inspections and actors were injured during flying sequences.
Critically panned for its appalling songs, unintelligible story and malfunctioning trapezes, Spider-Man was taken off stage three weeks ago to be radically rewritten and recast and its original director, Julie Taymor, was removed.
Last night Cohl promised the audience six new flight sequences and a thoroughly overhauled story. “It’s almost a brand new show”. Phew, I thought.
I was there for the first preview of the original show and what a mess it was: scenes came to standstills as stage machinery glitches mounted up.
At one point Spider-Man (Reeve Carney) was left hanging above his love Mary Jane, like a depressed pigeon. Not a good look for a show selling itself on its hero - played by multiple gymnasts supplementing Carney - shooting out, over and into the audience.
In three weeks, someone has gotten a ruthless editing pen out. The result is not a whole-hearted, sparkling Broadway winner. Compared to the genuine, original genius of The Book of Mormon a few streets away, Spider-Man pales, flails and falls far short - but it is now a working, workmanlike musical.
It satisfies, but doesn’t enchant. It will draw in the crowds, but a simpler, better told story isn’t necessarily a better one. Pasteurised and made safe, this new Spider-Man is dutiful and professional, but not a strutting wunderkind like Mormon.
The songs [there are four new ones], by Bono and The Edge, are still cock-rock dirge and a lesson in why humourless, heterosexual rock stars who take themselves way too seriously should never be let near Broadway.
But hey, the trapezes worked, nobody got injured, and - as the woman next to me said,“Thank goodness the story makes sense now.”
Arachne (T.V. Carpio), the goddess figure who was central to the original show is now a barely glimpsed, mythic presence, singing new age mush about Peter Parker/Spider-Man assuming his destiny.
Spider-Man is bitten by a spider at Norman Osborn’s (Patrick Page) lab, finds himself endowed with magic powers, overtaken by his new superhero ego, conflicted over how he uses that power, and then finally beating up the bad guys and getting the girl.
MJ (Jennifer Damiano) is a simpering embarrassment to young women everywhere; her and Peter Parker’s “cute” scenes together make Beverley Hills 90210 look like Chekhov.
Spider-Man’s enemy, with a much bigger role, to the delight of the audience, is the camp and grotesque Green Goblin, which Osborn transforms himself into.
Page merrily works on the principle of “throw me a lump of scenery, I’ll chew it”. The Goblin presides over a “Sinister Six” group of supervillains out to flatten New York City, and he sees Spider-Man as his son because the spider that bit Parker came from his lab.
The writers try to graft on some serious issue-raising around genetic mutation and war-mongering: these are needless and unsuccessful stabs at depth.
The producers have vastly expanded the Peter Parker/Mary Jane love story, and while the first night preview audience went nuts when they kissed, theirs is still a parlously written, boring, listless love story. The duo’s songs received only moderate handclaps from an audience waiting to clap anything loudly.
At the end of the show, where the new creative team have sensibly put the climactic showpiece fight sequence between Spidey and the Green Goblin, zooming all over the theatre spectacularly, a standing ovation erupted. They had done it, without injury or mortification and even chucked in a few jokes at their own expense.
The newspaper misreporting Spider-Man’s deeds, The Daily Bugle, is emphatically better than the New York Post, we are told (the paper that has been roughest on the musical). The Green Goblin quotes the musical’s bad reviews as criticisms of himself.
But truthfully the standing ovation wasn’t merited. For all the money spent on it, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is still a clunking, dreary musical.
The first half is story-heavy, plodding and predictable. The standard of singing and the songs have little sophistication. The story may make sense but it is meagre.
One of the most grating inconsistencies is a 1940s setting with references to bloggers and cellphones. Scenes still meander to nowhere. Character shifts, particularly Parker’s, are inexplicable and too rushed to have an emotional impact.
The acting - with its all “golly gosh” comic book innocence - is amateur (apart from Page). At two hours and forty-five minutes, the show still feels far too long with songs and reprises of songs leaking on for minutes, probably to give the scenery changers time to breathe. (You get used to seeing stage-hands manipulating scenery and actors on ropes, but you really shouldn’t when you’ve spent $130 - £80 - on a ticket.)
As in the original, what impresses is designer George Tsypin’s mesmerising, perspective shifting New York skylines and jutting buildings. The show intrigues our eyes, if little else.
Philip William McKinley, the show’s day to day director, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, bought in to rewrite the mess Taymor left behind, have given the production a “don’t scare the horses and for goodness sake let’s recoup our mega-investment” makeover.
The new, improved, safer Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark may well have extended its lifespan but, along with the faulty trapezes and formless story, it has shucked off any sense of ambition and originality.
For its nervous investors that will be a price worth paying. Creatively, it would have been kinder to squash this spider.