Theatre review

This spider needs to fly

The Times

November 30, 2010


The audience had already gamely endured two delays, and then came the doozy at the end of Act I. Spider-Man and his true love Mary Jane were having “a moment” when his trapeze wires malfunctioned.

And so he hung there, a superhero in abeyance, shrugging at the audience hopelessly. Attempts by stagehands to help failed and the interval was desperately called, which stretched from 15 to 30 minutes.

An hour and a half later, on Sunday night, the sigh of relief from Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street in New York was probably audible for miles. The first preview performance of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark had passed, if not smoothly, then at least without injury or structural disaster.

The audience gave it a standing ovation, possibly because the Herculean efforts behind Julie Taymor’s ambitious production were evident for all to see: far too evident.

The producers have until January 11, the production’s official opening date, to solve a litany of problems, very visibly, on this first preview night, still plaguing the show. At $60 million (£40 million), the most expensive musical ever mounted on Broadway, Spider-Man’s troubles have been well documented: its first producer dropped dead as he was about to sign contracts with Bono and The Edge of U2 who composed its music, last year the money ran out and its opening — originally set for February — has been repeatedly delayed, most recently because of safety concerns over its ambitious flying-trapeze stunts.

The possibility of stoppages during the evening was revealed by a producer before curtain up. He also said that “all the flying” had finally been approved by New York City’s Department of Labour and that we were not to touch a superhero or villain should he land next to us. The show itself was half an hour late starting, although this may have been down to the bedlam outside the theatre, where the queue for tickets stretched a city block. Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick were sighted. The audience’s fractious mood was not helped by a lack of alcohol. “We’ve waited so long for this. After all that, we need alcohol,” one woman next to me said.

During the evening I counted four significant delays, three in Act I and one in Act IV as technical issues were addressed: a stage manager implored us to “hang on in there, it will be worth it”, although a few audience members left. As well as the technical malfunctions the passage of scenes remained uneven, undermining the production’s pace, the stage regularly fell into darkness as complex sets were mounted, wires tightened and actors presumably rushed in and out of harnesses.

Spider-Man (Reeve Carney) swooped a little too dramatically into the stalls in his fight with the Green Goblin (Patrick Page), although this sequence was stunning; the actors flying above the audience and launching themselves from balcony rails.

At this stage the story is a puzzling, uneven mess. A group of geeks act as storytellers for the events on stage, but talk so indecipherably that what should be charming soon becomes grating. The Green Goblin (a brilliantly deranged Patrick Page) is dispatched too early (the visual was partially botched on the preview night), then returns with a bunch of other villains, then disappears again. Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano) are nervous and sweet, but the preview night audience cared less for their star-crossed hipster romance than the antics of the Green Goblin and Arachne, a spider diva played by Natalie Mendoza. Multiple Spider-Men fly and somersault here and there, while Page proved the most adept at handling the glitches: the Green Goblin had just finished a brilliant perversion of I’ll Take Manhattan, swearing to crush the lives of New Yorkers, when a stoppage was called. He carried on singing seamlessly into the restarted scene. One of the big problems was the fighting: Taymor has opted for slo-mo virtual punching and gouging; while this may look great on film in movies such as Kill Bill, on stage it looks hammy and unconvincing.

The songs are split between the ones that sound as if they should be in a musical (Mary Jane’s If the World Should End; Love Me or Kill Me, the glorious final number) and the dirgey cock-rock you would expect from U2 and maybe no one felt comfortable telling Bono to jettison. The sets (by George Tsypin) and lighting design (by Donald Holder) were mesmerising: from ethereally lit spider webs to comic- book renderings of New York and vivid LED displays on sliding panels.

On this first preview night, the audience was generous and sympathetic until the delay in the interval, when a slow handclap began. After that was quelled, a chorus of boos swelled and died. Most damningly — apart from a lame ending — is the near-total lack of flying in Act II. Spider-Man spends most of his time agonising on his knees. Shorn of this defining airborne thrill, indeed its USP, the show haemorrhages vital energy. The patience of a Broadway audience is not limitless and this show needs to run a long time to full houses to recoup its costs, make a profit and — as one of its producers recently told me— hopefully arrive in the West End next year as a swaggering global franchise, like The Lion King and Wicked. It’s not an impossible goal: Taymor herself originated The Lion King. But she and her team have a lot of work to do before January 11.