‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’ finally meets its critics -- and the results aren’t pretty


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The first full-fledged reviews of ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’ are in, and the results aren’t pretty. To give you a sense of the general critical reaction, here’s a list of some of the words that reviewers are using to describe the much-delayed, $65 million Broadway production: ‘incoherent,’ ‘a mess,’ ‘endless,’ ‘a turkey,’ ‘sheer ineptitude’ and ‘contender for worst musical ever.’

Of course, ‘Spider-Man’ hasn’t opened officially yet -- it’s still in preview performances until the big unveiling scheduled for March 15, which may or may not be pushed back for what would be the sixth time. But the feeling among theater critics (and their editors) was that the musical’s creators have had enough time to tinker with the show since performances began in late November. Adding to that is that the show’s producers have been charging non-preview prices for tickets when the general practice is to charge less before the official opening night.


Directed by Julie Taymor and featuring a score by Bono and The Edge, ‘Spider-Man’ has no shortage of premium talent. The book, written by Taymor and Glen Berger, is based on the Marvel Comics superhero but also adds some new characters, notably Arachne, a witchy enemy. The show’s many technical problems -- which have caused a few high-profile injuries among the cast -- have become a target for derision among late-night comics, bloggers and even the cover of New Yorker magazine.

Despite all of the negative buzz, ‘Spider-Man’ appears to be doing great at the box office, playing consistently to capacity or near-capacity crowds. It will need to keep up the momentum if producers want to see a return on their investment. By at least one calculation, ‘Spider-Man’ will have to play to sold-out houses for six years just to break even.

The critical reaction certainly isn’t going to help sell tickets. Here’s a sampling of reviews from the major theater critics...

Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times described the musical as ‘a teetering colossus that can’t find its bearings as a circus spectacle or as a rock musical,’ adding that ‘the battle over healthcare reform has a better shot at being resolved before the manifold problems of this frenetic Broadway jumble get fixed.’ He noted that while the aerial stunts were sometimes impressive, the musical’s lack of narrative coherence was ultimately the killer -- ‘Nothing cures the curiosity about ‘Spider-Man’ quite like seeing it.’ Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote that ‘the sheer ineptitude of this show, inspired by the Spider-Man comic books, loses its shock value early. After 15 or 20 minutes, the central question you keep asking yourself is likely to change from ‘How can $65 million look so cheap?’ to ‘How long before I’m out of here?’’ The reviewer said a technical glitch during Saturday’s show gave the audience some genuine pleasure.

Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune wrote that the show’s narrative was incoherent and its music a disappointment. He added that that the musical puts too much focus on the Arachne character -- a creature from ancient mythology, not the Marvel universe. ‘There is a fundamental discomfort, and thus disconnect, between the material, the artists engaged in its interpretation and the form of the Broadway musical,’ he concluded.

The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney called the musical ‘an ungainly mess of a show that smacks of out-of-control auteurial arrogance,’ adding that ‘the big shock when sitting down finally to assess this $65 million web-slinging folly, is what a monumental anti-climax it turns out to be.’

Variety’s Steven Suskin wrote that the show’s problems lie primarily with its book, music and lyrics -- ‘a kiss of death for most musicals.’ He described the story as ‘sketchy and ill-formed’ and the score as ‘an endless and repetitive soundtrack.’ The critic noted that at the preview peformance he attended, the show was halted because of a technical glitch during an aerial sequence 42 mintues into the performance.

One of the less scathing reviews came from New York magazine, whose reviewer, Scott Brown, described the show as ‘thrilling’ and ‘never, ever boring’ despite its many flaws. ‘As maximalist camp, it succeeds thunderously,’ he wrote. ‘I recommend Spider-man never open. I think it should be built and rebuilt and overbuilt forever, a living monument to itself.’


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Julie Taymor’s visions manifest in ‘Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark’

-- David Ng