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

January 24, 2011

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

Surprising Simplicity: A Review of the Decemberist’s Fresh New Album The King is Dead

January 24, 2011

The Decemberists new album The King is Dead has gotten mostly positive feedback despite the fact that it wasn’t what anyone was expecting. The simplicity of this album is quite refreshing.  The low-key country vibe is an interesting leap from their previous album, The Hazards of Love: a 17-track collection of songs with more symbolism than a Hawthorne novel.

This time the lyrics are not so theatrical but don’t lack the emotion of their previous work and apparently there are a few hidden meanings in their newest endeavor also.  Something about this particular album of theirs sounds more genuine than the previous ones.

Personally, I am a fan of the harmonica in the first track as if to say to the listeners, “Hey! This is another album and we did something a bit different!” “Don’t Carry it All” has a sweet tune that makes a great opening for the rest of the tracks on the album. The first few moments it is obviously a different brand of awesome than their previous work.

Though much of it has an easy, happy beat to accompany the lyrics, the song “Rise to Me” is my absolute favorite. The track is not a complete downer, but it is more downtrodden than the other songs on this album. The steel guitar and Colin Meloy’s vocals are vaguely reminiscent of the Grand Old Opry, but the drums and female vocals keep it from sounding too honky-tonk.

This album is easy to enjoy if you choose to dissect the lyrics or just jam to it in the car on your way to work. I didn’t expect to hear the variety of country/blue grass instruments in this album, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear the fiddle on “Rox In the Box.”  Despite the simplicity of this album, Meloy and guest collaborator Gillian Welch both used a good bit of their vocal ranges, which really made this album stand out from the traditional kinds of bluegrass-y tunes.

Though I enjoyed their last album, which many claimed was melodramatic, this one topped it for me. The King is Dead conjures images of back porches and fields of hay but not in a cliché’ way.

Sarah Townsend

The Decemberists dropped The King is Dead on January 18 2011 on Capitol Records. www.decemberists.com

Coachella 2011 Lineup: Commence Your Snarking

January 19, 2011

During the frigid, moribund Winter months – when the concert touring season is tightly shuttered, amplifiers and confetti machines tucked snugly in their warehouses – the average live music fan has little to cling to for emotional support.
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2010: A Live Music Wrap-Up

January 16, 2011

On a personal level, much of 2010 was about extricating myself from the front line of music geekery so that I could focus on, y’know, real life; jobs and relationships and savings accounts and shit.  The brevity of my recent Albums of the Year list – not to mention the tardiness of this article – can attest to that.

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‘Spider-Man’ Producers Say Delay Is Justified

January 15, 2011


The producers and director of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” defended on Friday their decision to postpone the musical’s opening by another five weeks, saying that a show of this unprecedented complexity could not unfold according to Broadway tradition. New productions usually have four weeks of preview performances to work out kinks and not the record-setting 15 of “Spider-Man” before critics review it.

But several veteran producers were quite critical of the move, saying “Spider-Man” was setting a bad precedent by having audience members pay $140 to $275 for the best seats at a show that is still undergoing script, music, sound and lighting work, and that still lacks a big closing number. Some, breaking the customary silence that producers tend to extend to their colleagues, also charged that the delay was a ploy to make more money before critics offered their judgments.

As it stands, “Spider-Man” will have had roughly 110 preview performances before its new March 15 opening. The record for a musical was 71, set in 1991 by “Nick & Nora,” and the record for a play was 97, set in 1969 by “A Teaspoon Every Four Hours.” (That play, starring Jackie Mason, closed immediately after its opening night.) By its March 15 opening, if that holds, “Spider-Man” will have run longer in previews than some Broadway musicals have run in their entirety this season, like “The Scottsboro Boys” (94 total performances) and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (99).

Michael Cohl, the lead producer of the $65 million “Spider-Man,” the most expensive musical in Broadway history, said the creators were still working on a splashy ending, including a major new flying sequence that was tested on Friday for state safety inspectors. He said the show’s composers, Bono and the Edge, of the band U2, were reworking music and lyrics. (Bono, however, has left New York; his return date is unclear.) And Mr. Cohl disputed the accusation that the opening-night delay — the fifth — was a tactic to gin up more publicity and sell more tickets. Despite bad press, “Spider-Man” was last week’s highest-grossing Broadway show.

“The best idea to market the show would be to open,” Mr. Cohl said in a telephone interview. “Our view is the same as Ernest and Julio Gallo: ‘It’s simply, no opening before its time.’” (A similar phrase was made famous by the winemaker Paul Masson.)

“Listen, this is a very different kind of Broadway show: a rock ’n’ roll circus drama, a piece of action theater,” he continued. Referring to the show’s Tony Award-winning director,Julie Taymor, he added: “A lot of theater people thought Julie was nuts when they heard what she was doing with ‘The Lion King,’ before anyone saw the final product. We’re not bound by old expectations of when to open or not to open. We’ll open when the show is ready to open.”

Mr. Cohl and the show’s other lead producer, Jeremiah Harris, said they had not seriously considered more drastic moves like putting the show on hiatus; Mr. Cohl estimated the creators needed about 90 hours of more work and rehearsals, much of which would be on the ending. Mr. Harris said that the creators needed audience members seeing the show to gauge laughter, applause and silences — and then make fixes accordingly — while Mr. Cohl said that the show was selling extremely well and that audience members were enjoying themselves over all.

“Our sales are strong, they continue to be strong, and that’s the best news of all,” Mr. Cohl said. “I think that says something about what’s happening in the theater every night. We want the show to be great, and we believe we can get to that point while we continue to hold performances.”

Ms. Taymor, in a separate phone interview, said that she was “finessing and finishing off some major elements of the story” and clarifying parts of Act II, which some audience members have criticized on theater blogs, Twitter and Facebook.

“I’m not changing the story, I’m trying to make it better,” Ms. Taymor said. She added that characters like the spider villainess, Arachne, and the so-called Geek Chorus of narrators, as well as a number entitled “Deeply Furious” that involves several female spiders dancing in high heels, would remain in the show with refinements, despite much drubbing by the public.

Usually such details are not part of the cultural conversation beyond Broadway insiders, but “Spider-Man” has broken wide across the public, largely because of the popularity of the comic-book hero at its center, the involvement of Bono and Edge and the recent injuries to four of the show’s performers. Ms. Taymor, for her part, said she was trying to block out all of the public and news media attention on “Spider-Man,” which has become a staple of late-night comedy and was discussed excitedly this week by Glenn Beck on his radio program and on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC.

But for all the enthusiasm that those radio and television hosts have exhibited toward “Spider-Man,” some veterans of Broadway show making expressed bewilderment over the delays.

“What the ‘Spider-Man’ people are doing is completely cynical,” said Jeffrey Seller, the Tony Award-winning producer of “In the Heights” and “Rent.” “It’s an end run around an actual opening night that would shine a tremendous amount of negative light on their superhero, while instead they’re riding on all the nonreview press the show is receiving because of its delays.

Patrick Healy


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