Reviews of 'Spider-Man' musical draw backers' ire

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 8 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

In this theater publicity image released by The O and M Co., Reeve Carney, center, portrays Peter Parker in a scene from the musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," in New York.

The O and M Co., Jacob Cohl, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

NEW YORK — The reviews are in for "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark" — and that could be a bit of a problem.

Not because of what they say, but that they exist at all.

Some theater critics are weighing in on the $65 million musical even though it doesn't officially open until March 15, a move that violates the time-honored agreement between producers and journalists.

The latest reviews — and, for the most part, vicious pans — include assessments by The Washington Post ("a shrill, insipid mess"), The New York Times ("sheer ineptitude"), the Los Angeles Times ("an artistic form of megalomania"), the Chicago Tribune ("incoherent"), Variety ("sketchy and ill-formed") and New York magazine ("underbaked, terrifying, confusing").

Their defections, timed to coincide with the third — not fourth — revised opening date, drew a furious response from the show's producers and threatens to upend the often cozy relationship between reviewers and show backers.

"This pile-on by the critics is a huge disappointment," said Rick Miramontez, spokesman for the show. "Changes are still being made and any review that runs before the show is frozen is totally invalid."

Most of the critics have cited as reasons for their impatience the show's record-breaking preview period and the high cost of tickets, which for a single seat can approach $300. They also worry that producers are deliberately outflanking them by pushing off potential negative write-ups, even as the show enjoys a virtually sold-out run: So far, the musical's 67 preview performances translate into close to 130,000 tickets sold.

"The big question is: How long do you wait?" Bob Verini, a Los Angeles-based critic for Variety and the president of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, said in a telephone interview. "That's a fair question that honorable people can agree to disagree on."

The stunt-heavy show, co-written and led by "The Lion King" director Julie Taymor and with music by U2's Bono and The Edge, began previews on Nov. 28 after years of delay. It's planned opening was initially set for Dec. 21, but that was pushed back to Jan. 11, then again to Feb. 7 and now to March 15. By the time it opens, it will have had the longest preview period in Broadway history.

Reviews have always been considered separate from news stories, of which "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark" has generated many. Several injuries to cast members — including a 35-foot fall by an actor playing the web-slinger that left him with a skull fracture and cracked vertebrae — have marred the production, as well as the defection of a lead actress after she suffered a concussion.

"It's a story that has attracted national attention in a way that most Broadway musicals don't," says Adam Feldman, a theater critic for Time Out New York and president of the New York Drama Critics' Circle. "Editors and writers want to have their say in it and get the readership that comes with that."

Early reviews are unusual: Critics jumped in while the play "Nick & Nora" was still in the middle of its 71-preview run in 1991, and did the same for the musical "Sarava" in 1979 before it finished its 39 previews, then considered outrageously long.

Now the rules have been tossed away again. Some of the reviewers for "Spider-Man" didn't even see the main cast, including The Washington Post's critic who wrote a review having only seen an understudy play Peter Parker instead of Reeve Carney.

Jordan Roth, who runs five Broadway theaters as president of Jujamcyn Theaters — though not the Foxwoods Theatre, where "Spider-Man" is playing — urges both producers and media to pull back and see the issue from a global perspective.

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