Wham! Pow! Thwack! No, those aren't the sounds of actors falling from the rafters in the musical spectacle Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, director Julie Taymor and Glen Berger's epic, hydraulic circus, still in previews at the Foxwoods Theatre on Broadway. (The score and lyrics are by Bono and The Edge.) Wham! Pow! Thwack! are the "sounds" of the high school bullies (Matt Caplan, Dwayne Clark, Luther Creek and Joshua Kobak) landing punches on bookish Peter Parker (Reeve Carney), who's about to morph into superhero Spider-Man. Fists never meet flesh in Taymor's staging. The bullying is more of a dance: After spinning in air, a lithe performer sends a punch out in the air. Carney recoils. A placard emerges from the stage that reads, Pow!
This is among the more subtle theatrical devices employed by Taymor. Larger effects that really do induce jaws to drop in wonder include a wall of golden silk that emerges sheath by sheath, as Marvel's 1984 Spider-Woman Arachne (T.V. Carpio) slowly descends from the upper reaches of the proscenium onto the stage. There's an arch- villain whose fingers shoot sparks. And of course there's Spider-Man soaring over the audience to the balcony, and back, and plummeting gracefully into the orchestra section.
Eiko Ishioka's costumes offer a procession of winks to mid–20th century Americana, and George Tsypin's storybook sets urge us to take in the story in two dimensions. If only Taymor had done the same. Instead, she and co-writer Berger mingle the comic-book aesthetic with a hefty dose of Greco-Roman mythology, such as showing us the origins of Arachne, whom we see (from the legend by Ovid) as a mortal weaver of incomparable talent transformed into a spider by a jealous goddess.
Although nothing could impair the production's ravishing, garish visual beauty, or the childlike excitement generated by seeing actors being whisked to and from all corners of the auditorium on wires (and with such speed as to leave Peter Pan's and Mary Poppins' comparatively graceful flights in the dust), the accompanying book unravels over two and a half hours into an obfuscating tangle.
When Peter Parker falls for next-door neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano), the attraction is an awkward, distracted business, much like it was when "M.J." made her first appearance in Issue 42 (1966) of the Marvel comic book The Amazing Spider-Man, by Stan Lee and John Romita Sr.
Peter is too unsettled to make a pass, and M.J. too insecure to consummate their attraction through assertiveness. Rather, she dates other guys while Peter suffers and saves the world in a headline-grabbing costume. Of course she adores the famous Spider-Man, and Peter's not about to kiss and tell who he is.
As in the comic book, M.J. suffers from an abusive father (Jeb Brown, in a convincingly and disconcertingly sleazy tableau) while the boy next door she kind of likes is never around.
After continually leaping from being super-hero Spider-Man to his tepid love life in street clothes, Peter finally says enough is enough: He gives up his spidery power to save Gotham from thuggery and evil in order to concentrate his attentions on the woman he loves.
Here, Arachne bursts a proverbial blood vessel, for reasons that haven't been clearly established, rendering Peter's struggle with Arachne a new plotline rather than the culmination of some tug-and-pull between M.J. and Arachne. It seems a small thing — remedial plotting, really — but on such details, the story might evolve through internal logic rather than seemingly random events. This occurs so frequently that one has to wonder if, in this staged comic book, a leaner, simpler concept rather than such an intricate plot would have better supplemented the visual wizardry.
Among the many forces of evil is a Green Goblin (Patrick Page, in a great performance), transformed by his own invention and lunacy from an already mad scientist/genetic engineer, with the goal of using genetics to ward off global warming. As the diabolical Green Goblin, he can make this task his reason for being. He's opposed by a coalition called Let It Be. So he's "green" yet evil. Hmmm. Is he "green" like all good folk who recycle? Is he misunderstood, envious "green" like the good/bad witch Elphaba in Wicked? You can tell from his mask (designed by Taymor) and his chortle that he's a bad guy, in that Disney cartoon mold. But, unlike the green Elphaba, I have no idea what he represents, or what his opponents represent.
Particularly vexing is one image of Spider-Man swooping in to rescue a elderly matron with handbag from a mugger — a black guy in hoodie. Both matron and mugger have features exaggerated by Taymor's masks. Spider-Man swoops in, ensnares the black guy and shows him who's boss. Is this a "comment" on midcentury racism?
Bono and The Edge's instantly forgettable music and lyrics compound this narrative quagmire with a stream of U2-ish riffs that punctuate some of the action, and provide the aural intensity of the Best New Rock Musical of 1982.
You haven't been paying attention if you don't know that the $65 million (and rising) show is the most expensive Broadway production ever; that, having postponed its opening three times, it's been in previews longer than many Broadway shows actually run; and that there has been considerable debate over the producers' policy of charging full price while they work out the kinks. (To deal with a series of actors falling, the show was temporarily shuttered by the New York State Department of Labor until safety issues were rectified.)
There are ethics questions of reviewing a show in previews, even after three and a half months of performances. Before the show I saw, a producer explained that these extended previews are the equivalent of an out-of-town tryout, which in this instance has to occur at the only theater redesigned specifically to accommodate this show's technical challenges.
However, the problems with Spider-Man have little to do with the tech at this point. They have to do with booking a Broadway theater with a half-baked story, with the inability to repair it, and with the novel idea of marketing an unfinished show full-throttle and full-price (commercials are on Jet Blue's flights to and from NYC), while keeping the press at bay. Enough is enough.
Couldn't leave New York without taking in the closing performance of Willy Decker's glorious, somewhat minimalist, beautifully sung and perfectly sculpted staging of La Traviata, starring Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta, at the Met.
Decker used no chandeliers and no hoop skirts for Verdi's very social tragedy, centered on a high-end Parisian courtesan with tuberculosis who stifles her one deeply requited love with jealous Alfredo (Matthew Polenzani) — for his own sake. At two and three-quarter hours, there were no more than four plot turns, and every image and note were in harmony.
Wolfgang Gussman's contemporary set and costumes placed the action on a largely open expanse, populated with sofas and an emblematic clock, which stopped when Violetta and Alfredo shared time, so to speak. In one scene it wound up lying center-stage, Violetta in a red dress thrust upon it, while Alfredo angrily hurled money at her. It was carried offstage shortly before Violetta's death.
Time runs out, or is run out.
Violetta frequently wore that red dress (when not in a negligee), sometimes surrounded by an army of Champagne-swilling men in black suits.
In Act 2, she and the couches were adorned in a matching floral pattern, a motif repeated in a massive overhanging mural. As recriminations and tragedy unfolded, Violetta removed the floral drops from the couches, revealing white. Meanwhile, lighting designer Hans Toelstede slowly bled the color out of the mural, until the entire stage canvas was in black and white.
Her Doctor Grenvil appeared throughout the opera, from the opening scene, in a black overcoat and cloak, slowly circling the stage rim, or appearing at an upper tier. Very Robert Wilson.
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Poplavskaya didn't so much attack Violetta's arias as slide into them effortlessly, sounding like a lark in summer. Also with crisp tones and a committed performance, tenor Polenzani brought to Alfredo an authentic impetuosity, and baritone Andrzej Dobber was grand as Alfredo's troublemaking father.
Gianandrea Noseda conducted.
SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK | Directed by JULIE TAYMOR | Book by TAYMOR and GLEN BERGER | Music and lyrics by BONO and THE EDGE | FOXWOODS THEATER, 214 W. 42nd St., New York | Indefinitely
LA TRAVIATA | By GIUSEPPE VERDI | Directed by WILLY DECKER | METROPOLITAN OPERA, Lincoln Center, New York | Closed