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.
"In the grand scheme, we are all in the same industry — those who make the shows and those who write about the shows. We all want the same thing: for people to be interested in shows," he said. "If the artists say they have more ideas and more work, we should want them to do that."
Here's how the process usually works: A show announces an opening date and begins a fixed preview period of a few weeks to work out any kinks. A few days before opening, the production is "frozen," meaning no more changes are permitted and critics are invited to attend as long as they hold their reviews until after opening night.
The case of "Spider-Man" has strained that agreement to the breaking point, in part because it has become Broadway's most expensive show and its opening has been delayed four times while full prices are being charged at the box office. Also, a big-budget marketing campaign has been launched, including billboards and TV commercials.
"If they had lowered their prices and been a little quieter, frankly I don't think the whole issue would have arisen," says Verini. "Our duty is to our readers. And I think that bombarded by the yin of months of aggressive marketing at top, top prices, they're entitled to the yang of guidance as to whether it's worth it."
The latest flood of reviews joins previous preliminary assessments by theater critics from Bloomberg, Newsday, the Toronto Star and The New York Observer. The Star-Ledger has also sent a music critic — not its theater critic — to critique the show. The Associated Press is holding off, hewing to its policy to wait until a work is complete before reviewing it.
Part of the frustration some critics feel is because restrictions on their opinions aren't shared by amateurs, who freely offer their thoughts on Twitter and online message boards. And while the professionals have been stuck on the sideline for weeks, celebrities such as Glenn Beck and Oprah Winfrey have raved about the show, which the production's media team has been more than happy to point out.
That's left theater critics wondering where the line is between becoming patsies of producers or champions for consumers. When, after all, is too long? The timing of the latest "Spider-Man" reviews now come just five weeks before the March 15 opening.
"Personally, I really think that waiting and playing by the rules and being a professional is part of what separates the remaining professional critics from the glut of amateur critics that can post their opinions anywhere they want," says Time Out's Feldman. "It's not like the public has no way to find out information about 'Spider-Man.' They can go online any day and see what random people are saying."
Patrick Page, who plays The Green Goblin and Norman Osborn in the show, says he understands the critics' frustration, but argues that the show simply isn't yet ready for its close-up. "If I were a critic, I probably wouldn't want to see it until the whole show is there, until you evaluated the whole piece of art," he says.
The producers say the delays are because the show is so technically difficult and was built specifically for the 1,930-seat Foxwoods Theatre, meaning a traditional out-of-town tryout to fix glitches wasn't possible.
Lead producer Michael Cohl has said he considered delaying previews until the production had gelled better, but argued that the cast and crew had to bite the bullet eventually, even if they risked embarrassment and bad press.
The tempest has even prompted some critics to turn on their brethren, such as former Bloomberg critic John Simon, who called the early reviews "unfair to the show" and "discourteous to other critics." Reviewing before invited to, he argued, is "like grabbing a dish from a restaurant kitchen before it is fully cooked."
That promises to make for some tense meetings at the New York Drama Critics' Circle, where both critics who have held off and those who have stormed ahead sit around the same table.
But Verini thinks the hubbub over "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" is specific to the show itself and that things will return to the normal pattern of critics waiting for a show to officially open.
"The preview system has a long and honored tradition and I think it's safe," he says. "I think we'll go back probably to the old, time-honored preview system and everyone will honor it. This one's just an interesting case."