'Spider-Man' is a freak show _ and not half bad

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, June 14 2011 6:40 p.m. MDT

In this theater publicity image released by The O&M Co., Reeve Carney portrays Spider-Man in a scene from "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark."

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

NEW YORK — Some $70 million later, after all the tortured, bloated angst, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" is somewhat redeemed by a little special effect that costs just a few bucks.

The big finale to the new version of the show, which opened Tuesday night, has its nine stunt Spider-Men crawling all over the Foxwoods Theatre and exploding little bombs of paper that shoot streamers into the audience.

Sure, other shows do a variation on the trick, sending glitter or confetti raining down. But in this tragically epic show, it adds a dash of whimsy, of thrill, binding us to each other — and to the show — in webs of white paper.

It may come as no surprise that this little low-tech trick was added after the departure of Julie Taymor, a visionary director whose vision had apparently grown cloudy. Would she have approved of such a party trick, thinking it tacky, perhaps?

It is also a self-conscious touch — something missing from previous iterations of Taymor's glum, oh-so-serious "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." This production is lighter and clearer, if thematically less challenging. It may not be the best thing in theater, but it is far from the worst show in Broadway history.

What it is is a freak, and it knows it. As the Green Goblin (a wonderful, perfectly hammy Patrick Page) sings in a newly added song that starts off Act 2: "If you're looking for a night out on the town, you just found me/(A freak like me needs company)/I'm a $65 million circus tragedy." (That joke is at least $5 million behind budget.)

"Spider-Man" is a weird mix of ultra-high-tech — the Act 2 digital projections of comic book villains is dazzling and the aerial work dizzying — and oddly low tech: A little toy train trundles across the skyline at one point. The same show that has a complicated fight between Goblin and Spidey over the audience at 40 mph also has huge cartoon-y cut outs that slide out as if in a sixth-grade talent show.

There is also an inconsistency of imagery. Some characters are human. Some — a trio of comic-strip crooks — are encased in huge Mardi Gras-like mask heads and carry fake machine guns. Six super-psychos called the Sinister Six (the show takes poetic license by creating some of the Six that are not in the Spider-Man comic books) exists seemingly only to show off costume designer Eiko Ishioka's skill.

That inconsistency extends to the Daily Bugle newsroom where you find a 1940s sensibility with cigar-chomping publisher J. Jonah Jameson and a stenograph pool populated by women, yet references to the Internet. It barely makes sense. It's like coming across vestigial elements from some long-lost musical — once great ideas now abandoned yet somehow preserved in the mechanism.

But why strive for sense when producers have already paid for the scenes? "You can change your mind but you cannot change your heart," Peter Parker sings in the song "Boy Falls From the Sky."

Philip William McKinley, who was brought in the take over Taymor's directing duties, and script doctor Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, together with original co-book writer Glenn Berger, have done a credible job in a very short time smoothing out this freak, but bumps remain.

What you ultimately get is what Taymor seemed determined not to do: a simplistic story of geeky boy falls for pretty girl, gets bitten by weird spider, becomes Spider-Man and then must choose between wooing the girl or saving the world.

There's also the parallel story of scientist Norman Osborne bent on creating Mankind 2.0 through DNA manipulation. ("Mutate and live," the mad-scientist says, in a slogan that could fit the new show's attempt to create Spider-Man 2.0.)

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