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Entertainment & Arts

Critic’s Notebook: ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’ needs some light shed on it by critics, and soon

“Waiting for Godot” was a commercial flop when it first appeared on Broadway, but “Waiting for Spider-Man,” to use a nickname that’s been floating about, has become a breakout hit.

The show that refuses to let in critics has just postponed its official opening for the — count ‘em — fifth time! Apparently the ending is not quite there yet. But really, why should producers subject their $65-million baby to bad reviews when it has already notched a victory over “Wicked” in the weekly box office tallies?

Not getting reviewed ensures that “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” stays in the forefront of the entertainment news cycle. Call it the belated sneeze strategy — everyone knows it’s coming, so all anyone can think of is the oncoming atchoo.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article misidentified Julie Taymor on second reference as Taylor.

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In the meantime, critics have been growing impatient. Around the holidays, Bloomberg’s Jeremy Gerard and Newsday’s Linda Winer broke protocol and filed assessments even though the show was still incubating in previews. (There hasn’t been a birth this protracted since “Nick & Nora,” a bomb precedent the “Spider-Man” team would rather everyone stop bringing up.)

This high-tech circus musical, which features music by U2’s Bono and the Edge and Julie Taymor’s spare-no-expense direction, was supposed to open in December, but has been so fraught with actor injuries and artistic problems that reviewers have been kept at bay even though the production has been doing brisk business since it began performances in late November. Meanwhile, bloggers, MTV and other rebel types (including conservative bullhorn Glenn Beck) have been putting in their two cents, no matter that previews are supposed to be exempt from critical appraisals, pro or con.

Taking note of ticket prices and the endless media tease, Winer argued that “it seems that critics are now the only interested parties who can’t see the bride before the wedding.” The show’s media reps weren’t having it. Surprisingly, a few drama critics weren’t either, countering, in effect, that reviewing (or quasi-reviewing) the production while it was still being worked on was akin to seeing the “Mona Lisa” before the paint had dried — a rather strange line of reasoning for a commercial musical based on a comic book character who shoots sticky webs from his wrists.

The debate didn’t stop the New York Observer from publishing its own interim critique, and more “early” reviews are sure to follow now that the opening has been postponed till March 15. (A Tuesday morning Twitter update tells me that New Jersey’s Star-Ledger music critic has just weighed in.)

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“Spider-Man” doesn’t lend itself to general lessons. The show is anomalous not just in its gargantuan budget but also in its spectacular mismanagement. But one thing is clear — the outlaw values of the Wild, Wild Web have changed the landscape for the reporter and the reported alike.

To compete with the 24-7 chatterati, journalists have increasingly felt a need to unshackle themselves from standard operating procedures, especially those that slow down delivery time. On the receiving end of media coverage, individuals and institutions have felt empowered by the accessibility of the cyber megaphone to alter the balance of press power. A letter to the editor is no longer the only recourse. The “Spider-Man” war cabinet’s multiplatform strategy has done its best to take advantage of the spotlight even when the glare has been harsh and unflattering.

Admittedly, the new battleground can get ugly. S. Irene Virbila, The Times restaurant critic, discovered just how ugly after a partner in a new Beverly Hills restaurant refused to seat her party and maliciously unmasked her identity on the Internet with a photo snapped on the premises. This wasn’t a case of her trying to review an establishment before it was “ready,” but such distinctions are easily lost in media whirlwinds.

How is a journalist supposed to navigate such treacherous shoals? It’s a tough question, and the shedding of so many talented critics by financially short-sighted employers, combined with occasional displays of schadenfreude over the demise of once-powerful print reviewers (as though this were a matter of just desserts and not a squashing of the cultural conversation) isn’t simplifying matters.

But intelligent criticism isn’t going to disappear just because traditions are being upended. Nor is it likely that the amateur commentator will supplant the professional reviewer any time soon. Sorry, citizen journalist and connoisseur: Experience and expertise have an enduring allure — they aren’t the prerogative of a graying generation.

Which is why Virbila will continue to be read by Southern California foodies even after her mug has been seen by restaurant owners across the region. It’s unfortunate that someone would try to compromise her anonymity. (The A-team will no doubt be dancing attendance on her now and forever, if it wasn’t already.) But as someone who attends glitzy media openings, in which producers carefully orchestrate seating assignments and red carpet spectacles, I can vouch that it’s still possible to give a fair assessment to readers, who may be experiencing the show on a comparatively humdrum Tuesday. I’ve learned to tune out the uproarious laughter of the book writer’s wife seated behind me and the gung-ho standing ovation that means about as much to me as the color of my ticket stub.

A critic’s job isn’t inherently adversarial, but it does entail a commitment to the truth of one’s judgment. Sadly, that is often seen as hostile to a business’ bottom line (even when the business in question is a nonprofit). We’re always being told that we’re living in an age in which everything is filtered through partisan politics. I fear there’s another scheme, less visible but more pervasive: the dollar sign. Freedom of speech (which presumably applies to critics) has taken a backseat to Americans’ God-given right to make a killing. For profiteers, the first amendment is merely a call to controlling spin.

“Spider-Man” has operated under the same “too big to fail” credo of our noble banking system. Until this latest postponement, I haven’t felt any urgency to review the production before its producers deemed it ready. But I think it’s perfectly acceptable for critics to jump the gun on this one.

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This high-flying Taymor extravaganza, in which actors have been regularly commuting from the theater to the hospital and preview audiences have been made unwitting witnesses to the construction of a second act, is a special case if ever there was one. It’s reasonable to give a new musical time, but there’s a difference between fine tuning a show and workshopping a commercial enterprise on the backs of overcharged consumers.

All the handwringing over what it will mean if a precedent of reviewing previews is set is essentially pointless. Respected journalists such as Gerard and Winer aren’t likely to sneak into “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” before they’ve been invited. And theatergoers shelling out hundred of bucks for a show that has been performing for months have a right to know what they’re getting. If the first wave of “Spider-Man” critics have transgressed any unwritten laws, it’s the commerce clause of producers, who cloak themselves in lofty defenses while raking in record-breaking dough.

The times are changing, and so are the rules. But critics are ultimately judged not by their obeisance to custom but by the lucidity of their writing. As long as they shed light in an aboveboard manner, readers will grant them a long leash. Their human subjects are another story. But a pen wielded in good faith is mightier than the petty backlash of anxious investors and their obedient publicists.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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