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Published: Wednesday, 12/29/2010

Can Spidey be saved? We'll know for sure in February

NEW YORK -- At 9:15 on Saturday night, Spider- Man and Green Goblin finally got down, or rather up, to business. They circled each other menacingly in dizzying swoops high above an appreciative audience at Broadway's Foxwoods Theatre.

It was a thrill not unlike riding the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island: An hour of anticipation for about 90 seconds of exhilaration. At least we didn't have to stand in line. The many boring sections were significantly offset by two key elements -- the visual design that includes George Tsypin's inventive, perspective-skewing sets and Donald Holder's fantastically variegated lighting, and the ferociously athletic choreography of Daniel Ezralow.

I was attending Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the $65 million show that has been previewing for a month and is expecting critics to wait until Feb. 7 before weighing in. This, while asking full price for tickets (my orchestra seat cost $292.50 and it wasn't from a scalper) and having begun performances before a complete second act had even been written.

We might expect more of a show that has been in the works for almost nine years.

The draw is that the score is by U2's Bono and The Edge and the staging is by Julie Taymor, who turned a Disney cartoon, The Lion King, into one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. So think of this as an interim report on a show still struggling to find its way.

What the team, which includes Glen Berger, co-author with Taymor of the book, has put together so far is hardly the worst show of all time. It is, however, an unfocused hodge-podge of story-telling, myth-making, and spectacle that comes up short in every department. Can it be saved? Ask me on Feb. 8.

Perhaps the insurmountable issue is that Taymor seems less interested in the Marvel comics hero than in some yarn-spinning of her own invention. For the real subject of Turn Off the Dark is a spider-woman. Arachne is the mortal of Greek mythology who boasted of her weaving skills, only to earn the wrath of the goddess Athena, who duly turned her into an eternally web-spinning spider.

Marvel may have ignored Arachne, but Taymor brings her in as a major character, weaving the costume that Peter Parker will wear after being bitten by the mutant arachnid that transforms him into a superhero. (At the performance I saw, Arachne was still being played by an understudy, T.V. Carpio, in the wake of an injury to Natalie Mendoza, one of several serious injuries suffered by cast members so far.)

Inserting Arachne isn't a bad idea, but it's executed so incoherently that we never develop much connection with Spidey or his alter-ego, Parker, despite the friendly efforts of Reeve Carney, who plays him. Carney has an appealing, rough-hewn voice and a slouchy, tousled look. He's well-matched by Jennifer Damiano's equally appealing Mary Jane Watson in an almost completely thankless role (not so different from Kirsten Dunst's lot in the Sony film franchise).

Do we demand depth of character from cartoon roles? No, but if mythmaking is Taymor's goal (she has said frequently that she sees the self-doubting but good-hearted Spider-Man as the archetype of a uniquely American kind of super-hero), the show needs to inspire more of an investment in its title character. That will only come with some significant clarification of the storyline.

A few good songs would help, in which department the show is sorely lacking. Like most rock stars, Bono and The Edge haven't a clue about writing for the theater. Many of the numbers are fragments and none offers much psychological insight into character. Tellingly, the ones that work best -- "Rise Above" and "Deeply Furious" -- belong to Arachne, who also gets the title song, a lame item indeed.

I asked the woman sitting next to me what had brought her to Spider-Man. "I saw it on 60 Minutes," she said, "and I thought, If it cost $65 million, I'd better see it. So I've been watching to see where all the money went.

"Of course," she added, "that's not usually why I go to the theater."



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