Review: ‘Spider-Man,’ Turn Off the Excess

It's re-tooled — and finally opening — but Spidey still takes way too long to spin its web

With great power comes great responsibility — to your source material.

The heavily reworked "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" is a frequently entertaining musical hobbled by an apparent lack of faith in its comic-book roots.

Stunning aerials, occasionally soaring songs and uniformly strong singing and acting are undercut by plot dead-ends from people — okay, mostly axed director Julie Taymor — who seem to think the Spider-Man myth isn't enough to sustain the two-and-a-half hour show.

The result: a plodding Act I that allows about 40 minutes before Peter Parker (an impressive Reeve Carney) finally puts on the Spider-tights and allows the show — and the audience — to have a little fun.

Sometimes a lot of fun. When Spider-Man is in the air, the songs by Bono and The Edge tend to take off, too. The show becomes the thrilling spectacle it could be throughout, if only it would cut about half an hour. 

To understand the heart of the musical — which finally opens tonight, after many delays and injuries — sit in the balcony. From there so you can watch the many daring aerialists who play Spider-Man run down the stairwells and climb over the railings, where they make their harnessed flights around the Foxwoods Theater.

Sometimes, before launch, they offer a fist-bump with a member of the audience. Sometimes they finish a flight by high-fiving a child. It's showmanship at its best — and it's especially brave given the show's accident-prone history, which appears, hopefully, to be at an end. Like the show or not, but give its actors and stunt performers credit for guts.

The problem? It takes an awfully long time before we get to see them do their stuff. And "Spider-Man" makes a very bad first impression — even after terrible reviews and extensive changes earlier this year. The remaining problems take place mostly in those dreary first 40 minutes, which muck up the webslinger's origins with asides involving military mercenaries and the myth of Arachne.

The injection of Greek mythology into one of the world's most beloved comic books feels like an attempt to class up a joint that doesn't need classing up. Arachne's inclusion is the fault of Taymor, the show's departed original director, and the character has been scaled back since her exit. But Arachne should have been removed entirely, because she adds nothing.

(If only she were cut before the first actress who played her, Natalie Mendoza, suffered a concussion caused by a rope offstage. Mendoza left and has been replaced by T.V. Carpio, who does the best job possible with her distracting character.)

I realize the show is unlikely to make yet more extensive changes, but it would be well-served to trim its many needless early scenes and get people flying as early (and carefully!) as possible. It simply takes too long to explain the origin of Spider-Man, which we can all expain in a few sentences, thanks to half a century of Spidey comics and three blockbuster movies. All together now:

Peter Parker, a high school nerd interested in chemistry, is bitten by a radioactive spider on a field trip to a lab. He gains amazing agility and strength, the ability to climb walls, and a "spider sense" that tingles to alert him of danger. After he uses his new powers to make some cash in the wrestling ring, he refuses to help collar a crook who steals the night's purse. That crook later murders his beloved Uncle Ben, and Peter learns that with great power comes great responsibility.

That's it — basically the whole origin story. Oddly, for all it packs in, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" cuts the part about Peter not stopping the crook who later kills his uncle — the whole reason, in the comics, he decides to become Spider-Man.

But not to quibble.

Everything else works well enough. The show's main song, "Rise Above," serves as a mantra for Spider-Man and likely the cast, who excel in spite of the overcomplicated book.

Carney, Jennifer Damiano (as Mary Jane Watson) and Laura Beth Wells (as Emily Osborn) have outstanding voices, as does Broadway veteran Patrick Page. Winningly charismatic as Dr. Norman Osborne in Act I, he takes everything up several notches in Act II with his transformation into the Green Goblin. 

Embracing the show's comic-book roots, the character cribs lines from both the Incredible Hulk ("puny humans") and Heath Ledger's Joker ("You're a freak," he tells Spidey, "like me!"). The Goblin also creates amusingly grotesque versions of villains including Carnage, The Lizard, and Kraven the Hunter. (In this case, the changes to the Spidey canon are welcome: Combining all of their origins into one saves a lot of time.)

The Goblin also breaks the fourth wall, like the DC Comics version of The Joker, and wins us over in the process.

One of the night's best jokes comes when he talks directly to the audience and informs us that his research was first budgeted at $65 milion — a figure that has since ballooned.

He's also talking about the budget of "Turn Off the Dark," and it's nice when a mega-musical has a sense of humor about itself. Just so long as those millions help keep everyone safe, right?