Spider-Man:Turn Off the Dark Falls Flat for U2 Fan

January 24, 2011 · Print This Article

An unabashed U2 fangirl, I find myself wrestling with the memories of having seen Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and wondering why I’m left with the feeling that I consumed a giant, wildly-colored spire of U2-flavored cotton candy—all melted away now, all gone.

The child in me adored the circus; I was swept away in the unapologetic spectacle.  Everything you’ve heard about the dazzling stunts, the epic lighting and staging, the wonderment of it all—that’s true.  Unless you’re made of stone, you’ll respond viscerally to the show.  You can’t help it!  When Spidey himself swings through the air and lands at your feet, you’ll get an adrenaline rush—guaranteed.

And of course, the music is stunning.

So why the empty feeling?  Why did Spider-Man leave me feeling sugar-shocked?

Let’s go back to the beginning of my Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark experience.  Over the past year or more, I’d been peeking in on the news that Bono and Edge were writing the soundtrack to a Spider-Man musical.  I hadn’t paid super-close attention to those developments, later hearing the rumors and innuendo about the show being “cursed.”

But still, that was background noise; in fact, nothing about the show became real to me until I saw the 60 Minutes piece in December.   Shortly afterwards, I received a call from my best friend and fellow U2 fangirl. “Want to go see Spider-Man?   I got tickets.”

So off we went to New York on January 5th, the country college professor (that’s me) and the successful businesswoman (my best friend), to see the Spider-Man matinee.

U2 geek that I am, I brought an un-jaded mindset to the viewing of this show: I didn’t feel critical, didn’t want to know about the “curse” of the show, didn’t want to hear about the $65 million budget and all the problems.  Even when I learned about the injured lead actor and stuntman, and the actress who suffered a concussion and then walked away, I still wanted to believe in the show—to believe that it could, despite the odds, amaze me, lift me, dazzle me.   I wanted the magic.

And so we arrived at the Foxwoods Theatre for our matinee.  The Foxwoods is smaller than you’d imagine; although it has almost 2000 seats, it feels tiny and intimate.  Our seats in the tenth row orchestra, stage right, put us in the thick of the action.  In fact, we were warned by our friendly, neighborhood usher that during the course of the first act, a flying Spider-Man would be landing just in front of us.

The Foxwoods Theatre stage, and some of the other interior features, had to be completely rebuilt for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.  Before the show, executive producer Michael Cohl noted that although most Broadway shows stage their previews out of town, this one is “dress rehearsing” right on Broadway because of the extensive modifications that needed to be made to the theatre’s structure in order to accommodate the show.  Thus, the goofs and gaffes and missed marks and dropped lines of the dress rehearsal creative process are there for all to see on the Broadway stage; this might have led to some of the extremely negative initial reviews.  I don’t know.

I do know this:  the theatre was sold out on January 5th.  Negative reviews and questionable karma aside, the people want to see Spider-Man!   I learned later that every preview performance has been a sell-out; thus, the production is already making some money.  Our tickets were $79.00, a bargain for a Broadway show, especially one of this magnitude.  Look for ticket prices to jump once the show officially “opens”.

So, we all know the story of Peter Parker, high-school whipping boy, and how he becomes Spider-Man through a chance encounter with a scientifically-enhanced female spider during a class field trip.  It’s a thin plot that leads us to the birth of a super-hero, albeit one who’s troubled by rumors about his intentions and struggles with his identity.  Julie Taymor and crew have re-envisioned this classic comic-book tale and staged it as a visual assault contrasting simplistic, hyper-enlarged comic-book drawings with floor-to-ceiling video technology, futuristic costumes, giant robot-props, and cityscape staging that propel the viewer into the story with no chance of escape—all this, with an element of Cirque du Soleil thrown in.

Pow! Spider-Man’s fighting the bad guys! Whee! There he goes, leaping across the ceiling! Wow! He’s diving to save Mary Jane! Bam! Look at him making mad spider-love upside down with Arachne!  The choreography, both ground-based and aerial, is spectacular.  Everything you’ve heard is true.  It’s so good, so fascinating, that I almost forgot to be scared for the stunt people who had apparently risked life and limb to bring us the very best in acrobatic entertainment. (We were told that the show had been “certified” by the Department of Labor as “safe” for cast, crew and audience).

Although the lighting and staging lived up to the hype, some technical glitches tripped up the show’s rhythm.  For instance, Arachne’s web failed to unfurl at the start of one of her second-act numbers, delaying the show for almost five minutes while crew members worked feverishly to uncoil the webby mess and allow Arachne to rise from beneath the stage floor.

Some of the acting needed to be polished as well. Not knowing the show’s book line-for-line, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you just when words were dropped or mis-spoken, but I know enough about theatre to be able to tell when actors aren’t in sync.  The Geek Chorus sections, especially, seemed forced and a bit under-rehearsed.  That said, most of the performances were dazzling.  Matthew James Thomas, as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, brought the perfect amount of bullied-boy-fights-back energy to the role.  Jennifer Damiano’s Ivory-pure Mary Jane Watson was deliciously contrasted by T.V. Carpio’s gorgeous, sinister Arachne.  Patrick Page made a Southern-fried menace out of Norman Osborn, turning traitorous and frightening as the Green Goblin.  Standing out from the Geek Chorus was new cast member Alice Lee, who played the perky, sardonic Miss Arrow.

But what about the music?  Hardcore U2 fans have copped a listen to at least some of these songs, but hearing them in unison, as a body of work being used to propel a plot, I was amazed by their sheer power.  And I understood why Our Dynamic Duo became so fascinated with Spider-Man. Postmodern, twitchy man-beast that he is, Spider-Man certainly embodies our own 21st century moral vicissitudes; I get why Bono and Edge would want to explore the spiritual depths and ambivalence of this character by reinterpreting the classic comic as a futuristic pop-opera.  Oh, and of course, they want to make us think.

But here’s the thing.  I didn’t have time to think, to feel, to interpret—no time to do anything but let my senses fill with stimulation.  And I’m not used to that when encountering U2 or the U2-related.  I don’t know if you experience this when a new U2 album pops into your hands, but me—it takes me a couple of listens to really get into the groove.

To weave the new music into the soundtrack already in my head and heart.  To understand the depths and complexities of the lyrics. To let the melodies into my bloodstream.  Do you get what I mean?  For me, this Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark performance was the first time I’d heard most of these new songs.  Given the spectacle, the distractions, the amazement going on before me, I could not, as much as I wanted to, concentrate on the music.  It washed over me and was gone before I’d really had time to process it.

Perhaps it was meant to be so; after all, going to a Broadway show is not intended to be the same sort of experience as lying in bed, headphones on, floating into a world of new U2 music.  And without a soundtrack album (I was told that no album has yet been recorded), the resultant effect was that I’d just had a fleeting, pop-culture, U2-ish experience that, however fascinating, left me, ultimately, feeling empty.

I don’t know how it could have been any different, however.  It wasn’t meant to go deep.  It was meant to fly by, swing on through, entertain and quickly leave.  Pow!  Bam! Whee! Despite what I’ve said, go see it.  You’ll like it.  Looking forward to an album—or at least a good bootleg!

Andrée Rose Catalfamo

Spider-man: Turn off the Dark opened on November 10, 2010 at the Foxwood Theatre. For ticket information visit www.spidermanonbroadway.marvel.com


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