I already posted a review summarizing my disappointment with the preview performance I saw of SPIDER-MAN: Turn Off the Dark. The more I wrote, though, the more I realized it was just way too much for a single entry… So I pulled a giant chunk of the nitty-gritty detail out.
If you’re intrigued by the new Spider-Man musical, and weren’t satisfied with the level of detail in my earlier post, then this “deep dive” review is for you.
The story itself was awful. Just plain awful. And frankly, that’s the biggest flaw in the preview I saw.
Spidey’s origins are glossed over, with quick hit scenes that barely introduce pivotal characters in the Spider-Man chronicles and give you almost no insight into why main characters behave the way they do. If you went into this show with no background in the Spider-Man story, you would probably not understand the traditional main characters well at all.
Peter’s experiences being bullied get perhaps more stage time than they deserve, including some embarrassing ensemble song-and-dance scenes that looked like a bad hybrid of High School Musical and an H&M clothing commercial.
We BARELY meet Uncle Ben before his untimely (and somewhat rewritten) death scene, and we feel NO connection between that death and Peter’s evolution into a crime-fighting superhero. Aunt May becomes a nagging old inconvenience, not a sweet and supportive family member whom Peter adores.
We get the barest glimpse into Mary Jane’s family life, through a split-stage scene comparing her drunken and abusive father with an uncharacteristically sullen and angry Peter’s squabbles with his aunt and uncle. Neither half of the stage is effective in showing why these two kids were so determined to make something more meaningful out of their lives.
And the NEW aspects to the story just didn’t work, either. The character of Arachne was a terrible addition, storywise, with a poorly developed backstory and vague objectives. We don’t really know why she wants Peter, or what for, beyond “joining” her in “the astral plane.” And we don’t really understand what her powers are, or how she uses them to accomplish her bizarre goals.
The “geek chorus” is an interesting idea, but poorly executed. Four high-school aged teens open the show collaborating on a Spider-Man story, and it’s clear that they’re meant to serve the same function as a traditional Greek chorus, but their use is inconsistent. If everything that we see onstage is them envisioning their work-in-progress storytelling, why don’t we see them at the conclusion of the story?
For that matter, are they supposed to be inventing it from scratch (which seems unlikely) or just imagining a re-telling of the well-known tale? What portions are supposed to be their ideas, and what portions are they leveraging from existing canon? And more importantly, WHY are they writing this to begin with? (For themselves? As a novel? As a movie script?)
The one storytelling device that was truly excellent was the set. Buildings appear like something out of the movie Inception, and shift and turn to show different perspectives. By pivoting a building to show what it would look like peering down from the top, or looking up at it from the ground, or set at eye-level among other buildings, the audience has a nearly 3-D perspective of the scenery. And the clever painting of the set pieces really gave a comic book feel, with actors nestled in between drawn images of backgrounds and even other characters.
I also LOVED the roving and turning treadmill built into the floor that let characters walk or run while essentially staying in place, giving us a sense of movement and action when the available stage space wouldn’t otherwise easily allow it. Peter and Mary Jane strolling down the street onstage is a beautiful scene, and Peter’s purposeful walk-turned-run does a great job of building audience excitement.
This is what frustrates me about SPIDER-MAN: Turn Off the Dark… There’s such great potential, which just seems squandered. They clearly spent a lot of time working on innovative ideas for staging and exciting aerial combat, but didn’t take the time to WRITE A DECENT STORY.
After all this time, and millions and millions of dollars invested, the story itself was half-assed and absurd, and the flashy and interesting pieces just weren’t compelling enough to make up for it. I’m just hoping the rewrites they’re about to undertake will help this show recover from itself.