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Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a 'Hot Mess'

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Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is a Broadway show currently running in "previews," meaning it hasn't officially opened yet. But since it'll be running in preview mode until at least mid-March (and perhaps longer) -- all the while charging full ticket price to unsuspecting patrons -- it's deserving of more reviews from ordinary folks who've seen it. Keep in mind, a typical Broadway play might run a week or two in previews. To have hundreds of such performances is pushing all boundaries of what the word "preview" means.

To put it kindly, the show is a "hot mess." Amazing sets and costumes can't make up for an incoherent story, poor character development, and a second act that just completely fails. At nearly 3 hours long, the production will leave you looking at your watch more than once. On the good news side, the technical glitches that the show has become infamous for seem to have largely been fixed. The night of our performance, there were no obvious glitches or technical problems with the show.

But that is of little consolation to most theater-goers. We had a great view of all the action sitting front and center in the mezzanine (what this show calls the "flying circle"). Action without a coherent story is the flaw of so many Hollywood movies -- not a good formula to replicate on Broadway.

The story problems begin at the beginning -- because this is yet another creation story about Spider-Man. But not the story that tens of millions of people are familiar with from the hit 2002 Hollywood movie of this masked hero, starring Tobey Maquire. No, this Spider-Man creation story is apparently a new one that features Arachne -- a mortal woman who could outloom even the gods, and for that she was punished by being turned into the very first spider.

Peter Parker's backstory is fairly unremarkable as told by the musical, and Uncle Ben and Aunt May take up only one short scene -- a scene that is neither memorable nor particularly endearing. The romance with Mary Jane feels contrived and also hurried. She goes from dating the head jock of the high school to dating the head nerd with little transition.

At the end of Act 1, it appears Spider-Man has killed the Green Goblin. But he comes back in Act 2 with little explanation. If Act 1 was disappointing and over-reaching, Act 2 is where things simply fall apart. The remnants of a coherent plot are quickly lost as the audience is introduced to not just one villain that must be defeated, but six (the "Sinister Six" no less). I won't go into their names or what they do, because they come out of nowhere, all at once, and seem like a cynical attempt to introduce us to some additional creative costumes. (The costumes were indeed interesting and fun to look at.)

In Act 2, we see Arachne wanting Peter Parker -- who quickly tires of being Spider-Man -- to take the Spider-Man role back. Apparently she has a thing for him. After some number about high-heeled shoes and spiders (I kid you not), Mary Jane is rescued from falling to her death not by Spider-Man, but by Arachne. Spider-Man is also apparently rescued by Arachne, and all end up in Arachne's lair. After Arachne understands Peter Parker's love for Mary Jane, she frees both of them with the ending number, "Love Me or Kill Me." With a little tweaking -- perhaps "Just Kill Me" -- you get the feeling of many members of the audience as the musical nears its end at the 3-hour mark.

(After reading the Wikipedia entry on the musical after-the-fact, I now see that much of Act 2 is supposed to be a dream Arachne created for Peter Parker. This is not at all clear from the musical itself, though.)

If you're confused by my attempt to summarize the story, you're in good company. I watched the thing with my spouse and we were both at a loss about it. I even know and love Spider-Man, so it's especially difficult for me to write this... But without a coherent and tight plot, it's all just eye candy.

Which is a good characterization of the entire musical -- it's beautiful and sometimes amazing eye candy. Some of the effects -- such as the three-dimensional view from on top of a skyscraper looking down -- are simply things you've never seen staged so well before on Broadway. The dozen or so Jumbotron video displays reaching up 60 feet form the main staging backdrop, allowing the director to display all sorts and manner of background scenes (but more often than not defaulting to the not-so-creative comic-book style big city cityscape). In fact, it wasn't until Act 2 that I understood those backdrops were actually giant video screens because they were so poorly used as such in Act 1.

All of the "flying" also falls into this eye candy category. Little of the flying is truly that amazing in this day and age of Cirque du Soleil and computer-generated movies. In fact, compared to Cirque du Soleil, the effects of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark are a little disappointing. Sure, they're flying above the orchestra crowd, but the actors who are doing the "flying" often seem to be struggling just to be in the right position at the right time. Nevermind forwarding the story along. A lot of the flying is in a circular motion around the "flying circle" mezzanine. One half circle from the stage, and the actor lands. This is supposed to be a spectacular effect?

Some numbers really worked well, however. "Behold and Wonder" introducing the Arachne character was something special. "Bouncing Off the Walls" where Peter Parker tries out some of his new spider powers in his room was pretty interesting too (primarily because of bouncing walls in addition to Parker's acrobatics while in the room). And I liked "Picture This," another number from Act 1. In Act 2, there are virtually no ensemble numbers and lots of soliloquies.

Soliloquies slow a show down, and when used sparingly, help you connect to the character singing it. So why put the two main characters' -- Peter Parker and Mary Jane's -- soliloquies right at the end of the musical? If we haven't connected to these characters by now, it's too late. You don't want to slow a musical down at the end -- you want it to build to a natural crescendo. Instead of being on edge at the end of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, you're struggling to stay awake. The added-at-the-last-moment flying sequence of Spider-Man flying around the theater during the last number does nothing for the story -- and nothing for the audience. Rather than looking triumphant, Spider-Man looks a little too focused on making sure he hits his marks.

Which leaves only the music. You can't have heard of this musical without hearing that two members of the venerable rock band U2 -- the Edge and Bono -- are responsible for the music and lyrics. I'm a big fan of U2, but I have to say that I couldn't tell if there was a memorable tune you'll be humming from this musical the next day.

Every song in a musical must be there for a reason, and it must be clearly and articulately sung -- either by the leads or by the ensemble. Some of the songs -- such as "Pull the Trigger" and "DIY World" -- were simply unintelligible as sung by the ensemble cast. I'm not sure if this is simply a sound mixing problem, or the songs themselves. But if you can't make out the lyrics to a song that you've never heard of before, the song is going to do nothing to help move the story forward.

There's also the awkward, ridiculous four-member "Geek Chorus," which is all over Act 1, but barely makes an appearance in Act 2. I suppose the story is centered on these four putting together the Spider-Man creation story, on the fly, so to speak. A Greek chorus is, of course, a time honored story-telling tradition. In Greek times. I can't think of a modern, successful musical that has used this literary splint as an excuse for otherwise telling a tight and straight-forward story.

The acting was what you might expect from a Broadway musical, which is to say, well done and of high caliber. I believed the characters and they tried their best with the lines they were given. Indeed, given the amount of physical exertion Reeve Carney does, I'm fairly amazed he's able to pull off the acting required. None of the actors particularly stood out for me, however.

At the end of the night, I'd be hard pressed to recommend this "hot mess" to others, especially at the ridiculous ticket prices charged. People were strangely quiet while exiting the theater -- none of the excited talking and discussions that usually accompany a successful show. I overheard people leaving, trying to find something to talk about that they liked in the show. I thought it was going to be an epic tale told in an epic manner. Instead I found something better suited to college theater -- a convoluted story told in an amateur way. Sadly, I don't think anyone is willing to let the emperor know about his lack of clothing.

For those thinking the "real" show is going to be different than the preview shows, I have to say I sincerely doubt it. The problems with the plot are in the very foundation of the story and can't be easily fixed without reworking the entire show. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was a formidable undertaking. But in the end, it just isn't worth it. You won't remember attending it a week later... except in your wallet.