BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
For the record, I did not sneak a peek at director Julie Taymor’s incarnation of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” so thankfully I cannot compare it with the post-Taymor version that finally opened on Tuesday at the Foxwoods Theatre after 183 previews and a three-week-long hiatus to incorporate revised material.
An advertising flyer for cheaper seats handed out in Times Square terms the show “reimagined,” but whatever it is, the $75 million results turn out to be not so much a Broadway musical as a dumbed-down theme park attraction with rock songs. Plus a lot of flying around the auditorium on zip lines.
A cartoon spectacle about a geeky guy transformed into a web-spinning super-hero, “Spider-Man” tells Peter Parker’s story faithfully and flatly. There’s nice Mary Jane next door and bullies in the classroom. Then a fateful meeting with a mad scientist who mutates into a Green Goblin gleefully bent on mass destruction. And so forth. The more spectacular aerial feats and fancier scenic effects are reserved for the second act’s doings.
Glimmers of a mythic nature involving a benevolent spider goddess named Arachne, who occasionally drops in as a cautionary advisor to Peter, vaguely suggest a higher power to the simplistic narrative.
Alternately busy and dull, the familiar story is embellished with U2-ish rock songs by Bono and The Edge. These tend to be rather mournful inspirational anthems such as the much-plugged “Rise Above” theme and a plaintive “I Just Can’t Walk Away” duet for the sweethearts. A stomping “A Freak Like Me” rant for the Green Goblin lurches into a zombie mash for half a dozen monsters and a hectic chorus. Bristling guitars, stormy percussion and breathy, echoing vocals decorate the rhythmic, repetitive score.
Basically – and I do mean basically -- this patchily-written, over-produced endeavor is kid’s stuff (except for the very little kiddies, who may be spooked by the scary creatures and intense video interludes). The ceaselessly morphing procession of pop-up visuals by Taymor and set designer George Tsypin are dandy, such as bird’s-eye views of the Chrysler Building and those nightmarish freaks unleashed by the villain (whose slime-green looks are striking), but they merely butter a heavy ton of popcorn entertainment.
Now smoothly staged by creative consultant Philip William McKinley, the formerly accident-plagued spectacle may be ponderous at times but it’s usually slick. A boyish Reeve Carney and beguiling Jennifer Damiano are personable as Peter and Mary Jane. Patrick Page’s ardent scientist transmogrifies into a wittily demonic Green Goblin. Flashily dressed by Eiko Ishioka, the supporting actors and ensemble players expertly perform their many tasks with spirit.
Watching this elaborate if numbing attraction at the Foxwoods, theatergoers with long memories may recall the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Starlight Express,” which opened in 1987 and was the most expensive-ever show of its day. Costing a cool $8 million, the musical involved roller-skating performers impersonating trains running on tracks laid around the auditorium, lasted 700-odd performances and never paid off its investment both commercially and as satisfying theater for adults.
While there is certainly a significant audience for junk food-style entertainment on Broadway, I wonder whether the million empty calories represented by “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” will be tasty enough to attract sufficient customers for a very long time.
“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” continues at the Foxwoods Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (877) 250-2929 or visit www.spidermanonbroadway.com.