at the theatre: spider-man: turn off the dark

Ok, let’s just get one thing out of the way:  Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is no Carrie.

Yet it says a lot about this production that Julie Taymor’s Playbill bio informs us she’s a 1991 recipient of the “genius” fellowship while just a few pages earlier a program note explains how “the Ancient Greeks reserved a special word for the sort of arrogance that makes you forget your own humanity.”  That word is hubris we’re told – and it can be found in abundance onstage at Foxwoods Theatre .

Spidey hats, hoodies, and souvenir t-shirts aside, Hubris would actually have been a better title for this intermittently inventive new musical which plays like a proscenium-bound edition of Cirque du Soleil without a sense of humor.  I don’t want to sound like a complete spoilsport, so let me come out and tell you there are some breathtaking moments of theatricality in Spider-Man. Ms. Taymor is masterful at creating those half-human, half-puppet moments that sweep you up in the scope of their dizzy spectacle.  But individual moments are ultimately fleeting.  With nothing to connect them we’re treated to the theatrical equivalent of refined sugar:  a momentary rush followed by an overwhelming need to nap. (I know I’m not the only one who struggled to stay awake after the opening number in The Lion King.)  For all the flying and fireworks and projections and video and George Tsypin’s jaw-dropping architectural sets, Taymor and co-author Glen Berger fail to fashion anything resembling a cogent story.

In fact, Taymor seems less interested in Peter Parker than in his supposed raison d’etre, Arachne, the weaver who was turned into a spider by the jealous hand of the goddess Athena. Arachne gets the psychological complexity; Arachne gets the good songs; Arachne – dare I say it? – gets the legs.  A good thing, too, because she’s the only one onstage who gets a journey out beyond cartoon-land.

Neophyte Broadway composers Bono and The Edge don’t fare much better but its obvious their director had other things on her mind.  The endless guitar riffs in Act One threaten to launch into a rendition of Where the Streets Have No Name.  You can almost feel the audience tingle with anticipation. I was too: patiently waiting for U2’s wall of sound to engulf the theater.  But that moment doesn’t come until we’re almost near the end of Act Two. Bono and The Edge seem reluctant to trust their musical voices while simultaneously unable to fully commit to creating voices for Taymor’s onstage cartoons.  It’s a waste.  A major musical talent squandered.  Two and a half hours into Spider-Man the composers come into their own with the haunting power-balled Love Me or Kill Me but it’s too late. The audience eats it up, of course. More interesting than the myriad stunts and high-flying tricks it’s the only truthful moment of the evening, not to mention the emotional release we’ve been craving.  After an evening of pure sugar it comes as a welcome relief to have a moment that’s savory but I, for one, couldn’t get the lingering bad taste out of my mouth.


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