The $65-million Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is not unlike eating a caramel-covered, poisonous arachnid. It's a deranged spectacle that's sweet going down.
NOTE: This article contains a bunch of plot revelations. Spider-Man, turn on the spoilers!
Last night, the first preview for the much ballyhooed, seven-years-in-the-making Spider-Man musical debuted. The play, which is helmed by Broadway power director Julie Taymor (The Lion King, Across the Universe) and has songs penned by U2's Bono and the Edge, has been a lightning rod for schadenfreude, what with its budget problems and cast attrition and fetish gear costume designs and stuntmen breaking their wrists when the show's high-wire stunts went haywire.
Indeed, there's been a whole lot of vitriol bandied about — some Spider-fans are protective of the superhero, and other musical enthusiasts are miffed that the web-slinger is interloping on the heretofore understated world of Broadway theater. But Taymor and company have outdone themselves. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was one of the most face-meltingly insane live spectacles I've ever witnessed. Sure, it's vapid, but you don't attend this show to see the Green Goblin murmur about the human condition. You go to see him fly into the audience, land on the third floor balustrade, and scare the crap out of theatergoers who have $200 to burn.
What's the show about? A gang of nitpicking comic book fans ("The Geek Chorus") are writing the ultimate Spider-Man story. In what I'm assuming is a commentary on comic fans, they're grating but become more tolerable when they begin waxing wackadoo about Spider-Man lore. The show then cuts to familiar territory — Peter Parker's origin and high school travails. He's picked on by a singing and dancing gang of jocks, who warble a paean to bullying that sounds like Black Sabbath's "The Mob Rules" (if it was produced by the Pet Shop Boys).
After Peter and Mary Jane sing a lugubrious song about how their lives are terrible, it's off to a field trip to DNA researcher Norman Osborn's lab, where the good doctor leads the high-schoolers in a Fame-like song about how genetic engineering is just the cat's ass.
Patrick Page's portrayal of Osborn/Green Goblin is one of the show's stand-outs (side note: Bono based Osborn on Ted Turner). Page plays Osborn as a Dixie-fried Doc Brown who's stolen his wardrobe from Matthew Lesko. The US military pressures Osborn into testing his experimental splicing on himself, and Osborn turns into a neon green raver-bat. Page imbues the Green Goblin with an appropriate campiness — he's like Willem Dafoe playing Norman Osborn as his character from Boondock Saints.
Here are some other random details from Act 1:
— Spidey apprehends two guys in giant Mardi Gras masks that resemble the Kingpin and Hammerhead.
— Osborn's scientists are named after famous Spider-Man creators: Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr., and J. Michael Straczynski.
— A terrifying cardboard baby head falls from the sky when Spider-Man saves a toddler.
— Mary Jane makes a bunch of meta-references about wanting to work on Broadway.
After a big battle with the Green Goblin. the first act wraps up. The second act is a crazed mishmash of Mary Jane drama, a battle with the Greek myth Arachne, a citywide blackout, and a happy but downright cryptic ending (granted, it's still being written). Along the way, the following things happen:
— Carnage (above), Electro, Kraven, the Swarm, the Lizard, and the aforementioned Swiss Miss have a supervillain "beauty pageant."
— Carnage sashays down the runaway the fiercest of all.
— The Geek Chorus cheekily admits to making up Swiss Miss (below) for the show. Swiss Miss has ninja stars for nipples.
— 8-legged spider-monster chorus girls rob a shoe store and sing about high heels.
— In the show's best number ("Turn Off The Dark"), Peter Parker almost has dream sex with Arachne while hanging upside down.
—Spider-Man's leitmotif plays 100 times.
I imagine details like this are putting some readers into conniptions, but two things. First, Spider-Man's modern comic book adventures have been equally absurd (what with his Satanic divorce to Mary Jane and the Green Goblin knocking up his girlfriend), so this musical is par for the course. Also, the show's at it's best when it embraces the camp. The show's attempts at pathos become a distraction from the thrilling wirework and the incredible, puzzle-box-like set design (seriously, the Chrysler Building fires out at the audience at one point). Also, the musical gives significant moment in Spider-Man's history the short shrift (Uncle Ben is in the show for 30 seconds, only to get mowed down by a carjacker).
So should you see Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark? If all of the below criteria apply, I recommend it wholeheartedly:
1.) I have disposable income.
2.) I'm cool with the notion that Peter Parker is the celestial bang-buddy of a Greek spider-deity.
3.) A bunch of songs that sound vaguely like "Elevation" by U2 will not cause me to hulk out.
4.) Flash Gordon is one of my desert island movies.
5.) The following pull quotes (all by yours truly) do not frighten me:
— "This is like the jazz dancing scene from Spider-Man 3...on ketamine!"
— "If Cirque de Soleil performed Spider-Man Rocks!"
— "Zardoz on Ice!"
— "The Broadway equivalent of the music video for Wu-Tang Clan's 'Triumph.' Similar arthopod fixation, similarly massive budget, a deadly swarm of killer bees, everyone is running up and down skyscrapers, and RZA is probably the only person on this planet who can decipher it!"
—"I can't believe it's not Joel Shumacher!"
NOTE: The show also had several technical problems, but this being a preview, I couldn't allow it to color my opinion.