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David Finkle

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First Nighter: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark Turns Nothing On

Posted: 06/20/11 01:50 PM ET

There's one crime that publicized crime-stopper Peter Parker as the hero of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark hasn't been able to stop at the Foxwoods Theatre. He hasn't thwarted the practically criminal act of spending an official $75 million to fob off an at-best mediocre musical, a production that is now apparently the dispiriting result of focus-group-think. It's as if a huge state-of-the-art factory had been built to produce one small mechanical bells-and-whistle toy that awes children of some ages for a few minutes before they lose interest.

We all know the back story -- not of Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) and his acquisition of whatever his powers are but of this ill-starred enterprise. We've been dunned with it long enough. Julie ("I Brought You The Lion King") Taymor -- asked by Bono and the Edge to create their idea of a spectacle featuring the wall-scaling comic-book figure -- hit the ground running. She came armed with the notion she'd introduce the mythical figure Arachne as a nemesis to her title character. Thereby, she'd spend $65 million to make some point or other she never figured out and still claims she'd have eventually conquered without specifying how much additional cost would have been involved.

At the juncture when the show had been previewing since the Normans invaded the British Isles and after several cast maimings, Bono and the Edge suggested -- which is the nice way of putting it -- that Taymor step aside, so they could bring in Philip Wm. McKinley to clean up the morass she'd made as director and also hire Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to clarify the confused tale she and Glen Berger had, um, spun. One stipulation, of course, was that they retain the striking and obviously expensive sets George Tsypin had furnished and the costumes Eiko Ishioka had run up -- the most effective of them for the Green Goblin and his menacing associates.

Faint congratulations to McKinley, who's billed as "creative consultant," and Aguirre-Sacasa. They (with focus-group input?) have definitely simplified -- without necessarily improving -- Taymor's anfractuous tale by all but eliminating the Arachne (T. V. Carpio) element intended to be the brilliant deepening of this take on the time-honored-among-teens material. Now the plot is a more or less straightforward depiction of a clash between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin (Patrick Page) and the crimp their sometimes aerial combat puts in Peter Parker's developing romance with schoolmate Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano).

But that's not all the substitute team -- abetted by new choreographer Chase Brock, augmenting Daniel Ezralow's music-video-dance-cliche contributions -- was announced to do. Supposedly, they would also beef up the Parker-Watson crush, but they've hardly done anywhere near enough to render that strand more than one-dimensional. Nor have they added anything significant to Parker's relationship with Aunt May (Isabel Keating) and Uncle Ben (Ken Marks), who've raised the dweebish, bullied lad in the absence of his parents. Perhaps least satisfying of all is the lack of anything in the least threatening about the hero-villain encounters. What's not going on in the air above the audience takes place as projected (Kyle Cooper's designs) on tall upstage panels. There may be some flying thrills here but absolutely no chills.

Nor has anyone given much thought to settling on the period during which Spider-Man's tale of wow takes place. The clothes for the home and school scenes are contemporary. When, however, the lad visits the laboratory where pioneering scientist Norman Osborn (Page) -- soon to be the Green Goblin -- presides with loyal helpmeet Emily (Laura Beth Wells), everyone's wearing futuristic outfits. On the other hand, as Daily Bugle editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson (Michael Mulheren) and his staff of hotshot reporters take stage, they're gotten up in 1940s gear, all the while talk of Facebook and the like is bandied.

And what is the purpose of Daily Bugle editor Jameson's aversion to Spider-Man anyhow? This is one Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark skein that newbies McKinley and Aguirre-Sacasa haven't at all tidied.

Being that this is a musical, what about the score Bono and The Edge have come up with, since they might have jettisoned Taymor, but they weren't about to pink-slip themselves? Okay, they've discarded a few tunes, most helpfully the Arachne and Furies shoes-acquisition number, "Deeply Furious." The noticeable addition is second-act opener "A Freak Like Me Needs Company," which, incidentally, is reminiscent of the "Freak Flag" ditty now on the London stage via Shrek.

Is anything Bono-The Edge-wise memorable in a rock-musical manner? The phrase "Rise above/Reach for the skies above" sticks to the mind like Spider-Man adhering to the sides of Manhattan skyscrapers. So do the words 'Say it now/Say it now" that Parker and Watson blast at each other when trying to solidify their bond.

What does Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark offer the crowds as genuine entertainment for their $140-top-ticket-price investment? There are the sets and the motley, schizophrenic costumes, and there is the flying -- albeit with all cables and other supporting apparatus on unmistakable display. Look at it this way. Our hero Spider-Man (also meaning the handful of performers who frequently stand in for Carney, including the once-injured Christopher W. Tierney) may fly around the room repeatedly, but the $75 million show never, ever leaves the smack-thwack-kapow ground.