Entertaining U’s Dual Critics took a trip to NYC to see theatre the week before Christmas. We saw six shows with the two best being the musicals “Billy Elliot” and “Next to Normal.” We also had the opportunity to get tickets to what is the the hottest show in town, Spider-man, Turn Off the Dark. We jumped at the chance to see the musical, costing about 65 million dollars to produce and therefore the most costly musical in the history of theatre.
The show opened in November for previews, and now the previews have been extended into February. Previews give the producers more time to tweak the show to make sure it is officially ready for the New York critics; it was announced prior to the show that changes were being made almost daily to the production.
The mainstream news has covered the progress of the show extensively, both because of the costs and technical problems. The beautifully renovated Foxwoods Theatre on 45th street was selected for this production because of its capacity for large audiences and the huge sets required for the aerial antics of Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and others. The stunts are demanding and several cast members have been injured; last week the major aerialist fell from a platform and required hospitalization and surgery for his injuries. Additional safety protocols are now in place.
The large cast of about fifty is filled with young performers; most with extensive credits in theatre. The biographies indicate many have dance experience, but don’t provide information about circus or aerialist training. The leading lady is Jennifer Damiano (Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man’s girlfriend), who at the age of seventeen in 2009 received a Tony Award nomination for a role in “Next to Normal.” Reeve Carney, the leading man as Peter Parker/ Spider-Man, will be appearing as the prince in the new movie version of “The Tempest,” a film adapted by Julie Taymor, who just happens to have written the book for this musical version of Spider-Man. (She has also received past Tonys as the Director and Costumer for “The Lion King.”) Natalie Mendoza, who appears as the powerful Arachne, was trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and has appeared in a number of classical productions.
Many of you are probably already Spider-Man fans, either because you were readers of the popular comic book series, or because you’ve seen the Spider-Man movies, and therefore know something about the adventures and challenges of the hero. The musical follows the familiar storyline during Act I, which focuses on how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man, but has its own particular twists, and the staging is much, much larger than life in scale throughout. The show opens with several women suspended high above the stage, with costuming that alludes to ancient myths, who personify spiders. The performers use the suspension banners to weave a tapestry that spans the height and width of the stage. Another highlight is Peter Parkers bedroom, as he first becomes aware of his ability to defy gravity; he uses the red walls as a multi-sided trampoline. And while the Green Goblin is initially Peter’s main problem, we find a new villain and new complications when Arachne, whose heritage and spider attributes reach back to ancient Greece, enters the scene.
The storyline become more complicated in Act II and remains a work in progress. In response to feedback from preview audiences, the production team is reportedly rewriting to clarify the dialogue, and plan to add a new final number.
The large colorful sets were spectacular, were effortlessly flown on stage, and were often filled with dancers in outstanding costumes. We also enjoyed seeing Spider-Man and the Green Goblin fly about the space above the audience and occasionally land on a platform in the balcony where we were sitting. The Wednesday night we saw the show was smooth and flawless as far as we could tell, and was a real crowd pleaser judging from the comments we heard from the enthusiastic audience as we left.
The lyrics of the twenty some songs were by Bono and The Edge, with music by U2, and seemed to fit the action on the stage. The play had a lot of humor and surprises, consistent with its comic book origins.
If you’re going to New York, you may want to put this on your list as a unique theatrical experience. Due to the expense and technical challenges, it’s going to be a long time, if ever, before audiences will see a touring version.