Saturday, January 4, saw the last ever Broadway performance of Julie Taymor’s calamitous superhero musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. I’m a huge Spidey fan (who isn’t?), so I’ve been curious to see the play ever since I moved to the city. I just never went because it always seemed like too much money for something that I thought would be, at best, a really cheesey waste of time, and at worst, the complete desecration of everything I loved set to the god-awful Dad rock of U2.
However, over the holidays I managed to catch a showing of Taymor’s other Broadway hit, The Lion King, and it totally blew me away. It was my first Broadway show, and introduced me to a whole new form of art that had been occurring right under my nose this entire time, and I had been stupidly taking it for granted. That being the case, I absolutely had to know what Turn Off The Dark was like. And of course, as fate would have it, the day I finally put my foot down and said “I’m going” was also the show’s closing night. So after work that Saturday I slogged through the slushy streets of Times Square to get to TKTS and plop down my $110, securing myself a seat for the farewell performance. If nothing else, the fanboy side of me was overjoyed to score such an expensive collector’s item.
When I entered the theater later that night, I was immediately excited by the look of the stage, which seemed to be held together with webbing and featured a large curtain with illustrations of Spidey, Mary-Jane, the Green Goblin and the Brooklyn Bridge on its surface. Already I was intrigued.
The show started with a surreal retelling of the tale of Arachne, who, according to myth, was the world’s first spider. This was mindblowing. It started with a chorus of aerial silk performers swinging back and forth, weaving an immense tapestry with their bodies as Arachne is shown angering the gods and transforming into a human spider right in front of the audience. Arachne pops up from time to time again throughout the play in surreal moments as a sort of spirit guide for Spidey.
Then we cut back to reality, and it’s Peter Parker in high school, doing his high school thing. He gets bullied, MJ acts kindly toward him and you see the seeds of young love being planted. Then Peter gets his ass kicked outside.
Justin Matthew Sargent’s Peter Parker was a perfect hybrid of Toby Maguire’s awkwardness and Andrew Garfield’s hipness, and Rebecca Faulkenberry replaces Kirsten Dunst’s obnoxious, mopey Mary-Jane with a radiant, secure, optimistic version of the character. Someone you can really see as both an aspiring Broadway star and as a best friend to a nerdy science student. The two walk home together and you learn of the disparities between their respective households, with Peter going home to his kindly Aunt and Uncle and MJ going home to an alcoholic father. Seeing MJ have compassion for her father, rather than getting into a screaming match with him, really repositioned her as the strong, supportive figure that you know Peter is going to need down the line. It also made her much more tragic and human.
Later, Peter’s class visits Oscorp, and we get our first taste of Norman Osborn, played by Robert Cuccioli. Cuccioli plays Osborn with a bit of a southern drawl, which was a bit jarring at first, but quickly became a lot of fun and added a bit of quirkiness to a typically uptight character.
There’s no Harry Osborn here to be found, so Peter’s only relationship to Norman is that he sees him as a bit of a rock star in the world of science, something that I also thought added a bit of good guy credentials to the character, helping to add a bit more weight to his inevitable fall. Osborn is also married in this version, his wife dying in the accident that later transforms him, so it seems they’ve kind of merged his story with the Alfred Molina Doctor Octopus. In this scene we learn that Osborn is under pressure to sign a contract with Viper Worldwide and use his research to create military super soldiers. All Osborn wants to do is enhance human physiology using various animal traits, something he sees as a sort of “do-it-yourself” evolution, thus ensuring the survival of the human race. Ok, Curt Connors.
It’s here that one of the spiders escapes, and Peter’s life changes forever.
As I watched the show’s first act, I remember having a hard time trying to get onboard with the tone of the play. Some parts of it were extremely campy, and reminded me of a high school play. Some parts of it reminded me of Grease, or maybe West Side Story if I’d ever seen that one. Then the Oscorp stuff came in and kinda reminded me of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles musical stage show that I remember having on VHS as a kid.
When it’s time for Peter to fight Bonesaw McGraw, the Bonesaw character is portrayed by a large blow-up monster that a handler is controlling from behind. I guess this made it easier for the actor playing Peter to really pummel him without hurting another person, but it was strange and kinda had me scratching my head at first. But then there’s the Arachne stuff, which is gorgeous and surreal and totally at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Bonesaw balloon creature.
Furthermore, the first act really does take a lot from the first act of Raimi’s original Spider-Man movie, so I was kinda disappointed that a lot of what I was seeing was just a hyper-stylized, super campy version of a film I had seen back in 2002. Luckily, that wasn’t the case for very long. Once the second act began, the play really started to come to life.
The second act opens with the newly transformed Green Goblin, who looks like a cross between the Grinch, Liberace, and Ivan Ooze, kidnapping his top scientists (Connors, Kasady, Kravinoff, etc.) and having them undergo the same transformation that he underwent. The result is the Goblin’s new “nuclear family,” the Sinister Six.
The roster here consists of Carnage, The Lizard (also as a kind of balloon creature, but one that walks around), Swarm, Electro, Kraven the Hunter, and Taymor’s original character, Swiss Miss. I remember the Swiss Miss thing bothering me when I first read about it, but I didn’t mind it that much here. She’s essentially a blade-themed female villain, like a walking Swiss Army knife. It seems to me that Taymor and company probably chose this lineup not only because none of these characters had shown up in any of the movies by that point, but also because they each represented a different color scheme, which worked well visually in the play.
As Peter agrees to take the night off and hang in with MJ (a really cool moment that takes place on a mock-fire escape suspended above the audience), The Six rampage through the city, a feat that is executed here with both the live-action actors and video screen pillars placed throughout the stage, allowing the characters to use their more complicated powers (Swarm’s ability to burst into a swarm of bees, for instance) with the help of CGI. It’s here you really get a sense of why this was called the most expensive Broadway musical of all time.
After the Six are dealt with, Peter goes through his obligatory character arc of deciding to quit being Spider-Man in order to live a normal life with Mary-Jane, but then later is forced to reconsider when the Goblin resurfaces. These moments, which are all too familiar for fans of the comic series, still worked really well here. Partly because the pacing kept it from feeling forced or shoehorned in, and partly because you really wanted the characters to work things out. You find yourself rooting for Peter and MJ, and when he hits that moment where he realizes his path has already been picked for him and it doesn’t include an awesome actress best friend/girlfriend, and he accepts that, it’s very bittersweet. That stuff totally worked for me.
Later, Spider-Man meets with the Goblin atop the Chrysler Building, where Goblin is playing his own version of “I’ll Take Manhattan” on a green baby grand. Goblin reveals that he has deduced Spider-Man’s secret identity, and asks the wall-crawler to join him as he ushers in a new race of super-mutants. Spider-Man declines, of course, and instead tries to help the Goblin reclaim his humanity. The obligatory (but again, totally well-done) rescue of Mary-Jane occurs here, not from the top of a bridge (which had actually been depicted in a dream sequence a few scenes earlier) but from one of the Chrysler Building’s gargoyles. Pretty sweet.
After MJ is secured, the final battle ensues. Here’s where it gets nuts. The stage tilts so that you feel as though you are sitting on the side of the Chrysler Building at night looking straight down at the traffic below. Goblin launches into the air, soaring around the theater while Spider-Man webs after him, occasionally landing on his back and pummeling him. These are real people doing this. Right in front of you.
Oh yeah, perhaps I forgot to mention this earlier, but the aerial stunts in this show are fucking out of this world. Spider-Man leaps into the air, swinging across the theater and webbing criminals before perching himself in front of the audience seated in the upper levels. It’s insane, and totally has to be seen to be believed. The final battle between Spidey and Goblin was the absolute pinnacle of the show’s high-flying wirework, and was one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever seen.
In the end, Spider-Man wins the day. This time the wall-crawler does it by webbing Gobby to the aforementioned piano, which the villain then knocks off the building, only to be pulled down to the street along with it. Mary-Jane accepts both sides of Peter’s life and the two make up before he swings off again to do his superhero thing. The crowd goes wild.
After the show, the cast came out to take a bow, the final bow ever for this production, and the audience was on its feet the entire time. After everyone had come out, Cuccioli asked the crew to join them on stage as well. “This is team Spider-Man,” he said, as Spider-Man extras behind him unfurled banners exclaiming “Always bet on red (and blue)” and “Vegas, baby!” (the production’s next stop).
Being in the audience for Spider-Man’s closing night, and seeing the cast and crew put everything they had into their one final shot at depicting this character’s story, was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had as a comic book fan. It was more than just an expensive novelty, more than just a $110 collector’s item. Having everyone in the theater, fans and performers alike, exploding with admiration and fondness for this mythology was incredibly heartening, more so than any Con I’ve ever been to. For that one final night, we were all Team Spider-Man. It was, for lack of a better adjective, amazing.