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.)
Pressured by the military to weaponize his skills, he'll become the Goblin soon enough and then he and Spider-Man are destined to fight. The script reclaims the "With great power comes great responsibility" line that had been dropped and applies it to the hero and his nemesis, both fueled by each losing someone close to them. You want deeper motivations? What are you doing at this musical?
The principal cast — Reeve Carney as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane Watson, T.V. Carpio as Arachne, and Page — deserve respect, if not Purple Hearts. They've been hanging in there — sometimes literally — through months of wrenching changes and work hard.
What Carney lacks in pure ruggedness he makes up for with a hangdog adorableness. Carpio, who has seen her role greatly reduced to the point that it may seem a little pointless, still sings with beauty and tenderness, even though her feet never touch the ground. Damiano radiates a sweet, Mary-Jane vulnerability and shares a pretty duet with Reeve while hanging on a fire escape on a starry night.
Page, though, is the real star. He's a Shakespearean actor who played the title role in "The Grinch" and knows how to walk that fine line between camp and earnestness. He has a villainous voice that commands and excellent comic timing, and he provides the impish joy this show desperately needs. (Just try not to laugh when he makes a Shake Weight joke or navigates an automated phone system.)
The first act drags as the storytellers pack in as much background as possible, but the pace picks up in Act 2. The songs, by U2's Bono and The Edge, have been gradually Broadway-ized, or at least de-Edge-ified. Gone, for the most part, are tons of jangling guitars. If there was once a sense that this Irish duo could simply write two dozen new songs and plunk them into a musical, that time is gone.
That doesn't mean that the music entirely works or is consistent in tone and approach. Some of it is weak, such as the Marilyn Manson-like "A Freak Like Me Needs Company." But "Rise Above" and "Boy Falls From the Sky" are standouts, straight from a rock arena. The wispy "If the World Should End" is pretty and the bombastic "Pull the Trigger" tries to fuse classic Broadway with techno, to mixed results.
The rebooted musical even playfully references the songwriters at several points, as when U2's song "Vertigo" blasts at a school dance. There are other little in-jokes. Guess the title of the play that Mary-Jane, a fledging actress, is making in her stage debut? "The Fly." OK, it's not "The Book of Mormon," but the little jokes that pop up in "Spider-Man" show the musical was at least created by humans.
Other highlights of imagination include the scene "Bouncing Off the Walls" in which Reeve suspended by cables slams around his bedroom, and an odd little detour when Parker takes on an inflatable giant wrestler being manipulated by a very visible man. Both these scenes don't try to hide the trick, but still produce a childlike wonderment.
George Tsypin's sets are ingenious, particularly his Chrysler Building with its antenna pushing out toward the audience, with a little trail of tiny cars lighted on the street far below. He favors a bold, pop art style that overemphasizes angles and perspective. When Peter and Mary-Jane walk home from school, huge panels depicting houses along the route open and close as if a comic book is being read. One of the most visually stunning scenes has Arachne's followers weave huge swaths of saffron fabric as they swing across the stage, one of Taymor's memorable images.
Glitches remain, though. Too much smoke one night pretty much destroyed a Goblin scene, and the sound system often leaves the lyrics muddy. But the stunts now seem assured (even if the Goblin's flying isn't as sexy as Spider-Man's). And put your hands together at the curtain call for performer Christopher Tierney, who as Spider-Man almost broke his neck in the name of entertainment and returned; whatever you think of the show, he is a trooper.
In the end, you know how it all ends. SPLAT! goes the Goblin. Big SMOOCH! between Mary-Jane and Peter Parker.
It would have been different if Taymor had more time and we had more patience. But it's not so bad without her. Fanboys, especially, will get giddy and clutch their Playbills happily, and maybe will want to come back.