The latest news from the ever-entertaining saga that is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is that the show’s four narrators, the Geek Chorus (as in Greek Chorus for the obtuse among us), have been removed from the musical. That the four Geeks, three teenage boys and an obviously defiant girl, are supposedly based upon the four originators of the Spidey Musical: Bono, the Edge, original choreographer Dan Ezralow, and director Julie Taymor, is a piece of news even more steeped in irony than is usual with this off-stage soap opera. Director Julie Taymor (The Lion King) is gone. Her onstage character is gone too. What will happen to the offstage geeks now?
As has been widely reported, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark will soon take a much-needed hiatus before it attempts to re-open on June 14. After five injuries and numerous delays, Spider-Man is changing directors and retooling its book. If script doctors Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Glen Berger (who had co-written Spidey with Julie Taymor) are taking suggestions, I have a few after catching last week’s preview.
Keep the aerials. This might seem a strange request seeing as how the night I attended, the understudy America Olivo was filling in for actress T. V. Carpio who plays Arachne, the villainess, because Ms. Carpio had a whiplash injury. Bring on more aerial acrobats. Again I say this even in light of the near accident I witnessed from three seats away. Spidey came in, front row mezzanine, and overshot his landing. It was truly terrifying. My heart pounded well through intermission, and it wasn’t from the thrill of an absorbing musical. There’s been some speculation that the well-attended previews are due to a bloodthirsty audience, but I stand firm in the belief that no one wishes Spidey or his aerialists ill. The near miss and the whiplash convince me that acrobatics need to be in the hands of professionals and professionals only.
It is a good sign that the production team is bringing in circus and theatre director Philip William McKinley to revamp the show. With more aerialists and fewer mainstream actors/singers involved, perhaps there will be fewer accidents. Let’s let Reeve Carney (Spider-man) off the hook literally from his final mask-free soar above the crowd. Mr. Carney has a marvelous voice and presence; the young star does more than credit to the lackluster U2 score, but he looked positively queasy during his final plunge, and that doesn’t do anything for the suspension of disbelief.
Having only aerialists above the crowd will free Jennifer Damiano, who plays Mary Jane, from her harness as well. Spider-man couldn’t do that, making for a long awkward moment as Mr. Carney struggled to get M.J. off her lines for their reconciliation. M.J. then struggled with her lines. You see where I’m going with this. Proposal: the principals stay on stage, happily fake-walking, and the acrobat experts thrill us in a Cirque du Superhero.
Speaking of the stage: trash all the sets. Okay, keep the Manhattan scenes, but the rest? Put them out on cardboard recycling day. I understand that the intent is to keep with a cartoonish tone, but all it does is remind the audience that the play costs $65 million (and counting), and Aunt May’s house looks like cardboard up there. During the Daily Bugle scenes, one slab of set would descend so slowly and out of sync with the rest, I kept expecting it to continue falling until it would hit J. Jonah Jameson (the excellent Michael Mulheren) who would, I expect, have a acerbic retort.
Along with the sets, get rid of all dolls, large and small, and the toy trains too. There is nothing dramatic about a two-foot-tall model of Spider-man. It is a Spinal Tap moment: the superhero in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.
Most costumes, except the Webslinger’s of course, can go too, especially anything worn by Arachne and the giant, swollen, ghastly receptacle that represents a spider’s body. Arachne can stay. I do think I see a bit of Taymor’s reasoning in having such a complicated, reactive foil to Peter P., but all of her henchwomen should go as well, not just the Geek Chorus. There are some unspeakable dance numbers that give spiders a bad name. And speaking of unspeakable, here are a couple of musical numbers that are in need of more edge:
1. “D.I.Y World” – lose the song, and thankfully the aluminum foil costumes (think Mystery Science Theatre 3000 without the laughs) and the Madonna vogue poses will thankfully fall by the wayside too. And by the way, D. I. Y. does not mean “Free Will” no matter how many times it is professed in the song.
2. Scrap “Sinistereo” too. Bono and the Edge of U2, the musical minds behind Spider-Man, should think about going back to their club roots 25 years ago to find some of that energy so needed for musical theater. Avoid the arena rock and think about the old days at the Ritz, NYC. Make people dance.
3. “Rise Above” – it’s a perfectly lovely song if only it wasn’t sung by a swollen spider. Not even Charlotte could pull this off.
It is a mercy that the Geek Chorus will be dropped. They and the cartoon backdrops, the toy trains, and the comic surrealism in general, serve only to distance the audience from engaging with what is going on onstage. At the theatre, you want to lose yourself in the entertainment, not be continually reminded that you are being entertained.
My heart is with all the hard-working men and women involved in this circus. The poignant impact of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark didn’t happen anywhere near the stage but on the ledge of the first row mezzanine when Spidey slipped and banged off the brass rail of the Foxwoods Theatre. In quiet and darkness, the crew swooped down. “Are you okay?” Spidey nodded in silence. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Spidey nodded. Everyone was silent and still for what seemed like hours until Spidey turned and headed down to the ground on his safety lines. The crowd applauded wildly and with real emotion. This has been quite a battle for actors and crew, and I’m rooting for their success.
Upon the end of the show, the stranger seated next to me turned and said: “It’s really as bad as they say.” It is. But it’s worth saving.
photo by Jacob Cohl.