Much like Anthony Weiner‘s privates, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark turns out to be spectacular and dull at the same time.
Yes, I actually just saw the troubled Broadway extrava-gorgonzola, having waited—and waited—for an official invitation so I could catch the thing when it was finally deemed ready rather than sneak in sooner and, what’s worse, pay.
In the past few weeks, as the retooled show started up again, I heard all the new buzz—from “It’s a masterpiece now” to “It used to be pretentious and boring. Now it’s just boring”—but I still waited and waited, with an open mind and a flyswatter. And on Saturday night, I sat my privileged ass down and found the arachno-musical to be simultaneously thrilling and yawn-inducing, which is not an easy mix to pull off.
The weirdness started even before the show. An usher barked that we could not film anything onstage, but then an authorized woman in the aisles ironically started filming us for a Spider-Man documentary they’re doing. So that was OK? By the time the camera was right up in my face, the man behind me was complaining to the usher, who replied, “Well, I can get you a manager to talk to—but there’s a disclaimer outside saying we’d be filming.” Fortunately, that whole drama ended when the curtain rose, so the manager could go back to things like calling insurance companies.
The show starts with Peter Parker declaring that “People hate spiders!”—so true—though Arachne then descends for a hypnotic number, her maidens flying on chiffon strips, which form a trellis as Arachne sings about wonder while sprouting legs. From there, the evening veers between high school angst—Peter is bullied, but finds “it gets better”—to high camp scenes in the newsroom, where photojournalist Peter is trying to keep a dinosaur newspaper alive, much like all the critics who’ve feasted off Spider-Man for the last year.
The tonal shifts are uncomfortable, but what’s worse is the fact that most of the times someone opens their mouth to sing, you want to reach for the Raid can. Bono has moaned that Julie Taymor was too close to the material to accept criticism, which is what I’ve said all along, but his and the Edge‘s score is not exactly inspired, so should he be the one to complain? Maybe they should have called Elton John for lessons on how to write pop-rock music for the theater—or perhaps just trotted out their old hits and set the show on “New Year’s Day.”
I did like the jangling, mid-tempo “A Freak Like Me” number for the Green Goblin (Patrick Page), and one song for Spidey, “Rise Above,” sounded good enough to be a U2 cut. But too many of the tunes are dirge-like without driving things forward, so you end up humming the scenery while praying the actors will shut up and twirl around again.
Furthermore, superhero sagas generally work best as movies because the fantasy element can be pulled off more persuasively, whereas here it’s willfully theatrical, with multiple stunt people playing the lead role, and lots of strings showing.
But the sets are cleverly cartoony (a Chrysler Building effect is breathtaking), there are some very striking pictures, and the show ends with 15 outstanding minutes or so of swooping into the audience, Spidey landing in the aisle at one point to high-five the boy across from me. (Too bad the documentary lady didn’t catch that moment.) You leave on a relative high, almost forgetting the tangled web of unevenness that preceded that. Spider-Man is still an event, even if it comes off like a tone-deaf Tommy with aerial acts. But I feel they should retool this show one more time and use music by Adam and the Ants.
Spider-Man jokes made it to Sunday’s Tony Awards, but there were way hotter bugs to celebrate that night. After all, The Book of Mormon‘s recurring gag is, “There are maggots in my scrotum.” And when that show’s Nikki M. James won Best Featured Actress, she interestingly announced, “I come from a long line of bumblebees.”
And what about fruit flies? The Tony show hilariously started with host Neil Patrick Harris singing about how Broadway’s “not for gays anymore,” but not to fear—it was as ironic as the woman shooting the audience at Spider-Man.
In fact, Neil later duetted with a prancing Hugh Jackman on Gypsy and Funny Girl songs. Almost every single winner thanked a “partner” or at least went home with one. And the sight of Larry Kramer and Martha Wash on the same program surely turned a whole new generation of boys into lamé-wearing sister acts.
It was the best Tonys in years, and I even loved Brooke Shields messing up her singing bit, then getting bleeped when she later explained that she’d fucked up. That’s two memorable boo-boos in one show! At the after-party at the Plaza, I grinningly told Stephen Colbert that he did better than Brooke. “I don’t think so,” he replied. “She stayed beautiful!”
At that point, some Broadway type jumped me and moaned, “Those poor underage kids who were forced to sing Memphis!” In tears, I fled to the O&M p.r. company’s party at the Carlyle, where I came face to face with Bono, of all people. And he was nice! I told him that he and the Edge were fun on the Tonys—well, they were—and he said, “Was it OK? It’s sometimes better when you’re out of your depth. It’s a completely different world. It’s fun and frightening.” The guy isn’t bad. Nix the Adam and the Ants idea.