Not my word, but the only word possible to describe the reviews for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.
When I saw it back in January, I wondered in print if the critics would respect the endlessly-postponed “opening” date. Most of them have chosen to review it on the previous announced official opening date, and I think that was the right thing. First, the show was taking advantage of the lack of reviews to rake in money; with few notices to tell the public that the show was bad, it functioned as a heavily-publicized, critic-proof production. The nastiness of the reviews, while deserved, might have something to do with critics’ suspicion that Julie Taymor and company were trying to take advantage of an old tradition (not reviewing the show until the official opening) by postponing the opening until it was too late to stop it from becoming a long-running hit. It might still be too late, but it’s worth pointing out that it’s not a good show.
Second, the reason critics wait until previews are over is that a show is supposed to get fixed during those early performances, and the show a critic sees in tryouts might be different, and worse, than the show that opens. But the amazing thing about Spider-Man is that despite having the most previews of any musical, it doesn’t appear to have changed that much. Taymor has spent a lot of time tweaking the special effects, and the ending, but the songs — the things that most need to be cut and changed and added during previews — appear to have remained mostly unchanged; Bono and the Edge weren’t there for most of the preview period, and when they came back, they reportedly added “no new songs.” When I was there, it was obvious that the score was not good and that there were severe problems with even hearing the score: everyone complained about the sound system, which rendered most of the lyrics as unintelligible mush. Yet a month later, preview audiences were still hearing the same songs and still complaining about the bad sound system that wouldn’t let them hear the lyrics. If the show isn’t really going to be substantially fixed, then there’s less necessity for critics to wait.
If the show does not do well, and I still have this fear that it might yet prove indestructible, the refusal to re-think the score may turn out to have been the biggest problem. It’s as if Taymor thought the real highlights of the show would be the flying sequences and other effects, and they just aren’t; people have been flying in the theatre for over 100 years and there’s only so many times the audience can be “wowed” by such sequences in one show. Most musicals depend on great numbers. They need a good strong book, too, which this ain’t got, but they also need to have a couple of showstopping numbers, or why have we even gone to a musical? It’s a truism that this show doesn’t have a single song as good as the old Spider-Man cartoon song, because that one had a memorable musical hook, lyrics that were specifically about Spider-Man, and was mixed so that you could understand most of the words.
But Bono and the Edge were busy, and the creative team was apparently focused on making the special effects safer, and little attention seemed to be paid to the problem of the songs sounding the same and the numbers sort of beginning and ending without any real shape to them. This is why it’s important to have the songwriters there during the preview period. An anecdotal example: during tryouts, a little show called Fiddler On the Roof had serious second-act trouble. So the creators threw out all but one song in the second act, and went to work coming up with new ones: a song to solidify a key relationship and lighten the mood (“Do You Love Me?”) and a new final song that would establish a sense of community and make us understand what the characters were leaving behind at the end (“Anatevka”). Musicals, good and bad alike, need to throw out the songs that don’t work and add new ones.
Otherwise, my impression of the show was closest to Ben Brantley’s in the New York Times. Mostly because, at a different performance, he noticed the same thing: the audience only really got excited when something went wrong. That’s the main attraction. And it’s really not enough of an attraction to justify that kind of money.
Another problem, but one I’m more sympathetic about because it’s built into the material, is that Spidey’s costume is just really bad for the theatre. In the comics, it works fine: Spidey talks constantly with the help of speech balloons, and it doesn’t matter that you can’t see his mouth. On film it’s trickier, and in the theatre it’s very difficult to have any sound coming out of a character whose entire head is covered by a mask. (Most heroes have their mouths or even their whole faces uncovered. Not Spider-boy.) That means that when Spidey is in costume, he really doesn’t project any personality at all on the stage. Taymor has tried to deal with this — by making Spidey more of a pantomime character and having Peter go around with his mask off as much as possible — but it doesn’t really work. There’s a reason there are few musicals about characters who don’t sing, and while Peter Parker sings a lot, Spider-Man really can’t express himself on the stage.