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My Thoughts on Turn off the Dark


spfarrell
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Saw it last night & to say it was uneven would be an understatement.  After an hourlong focus group at the end of the show (I was pulled aside & given the chance to attend prior to the show's start - a very cool opportunity) I figured I'd write down my thoughts for some friends around here who are also interested in seeing it.  I'll try to organize my thoughts in a way I figure you'll appreciate & begin with...

The Music

So much of it was instantly identifiable as U2.  A guitar part that could only be crafted by The Edge.  Lyrics with an earnestness that only Bono could deliver.  Bombast.  Energy. Propulsive grooves.  While at times it is played at such a volume it drowns out the lyrics or draws away from the action, overall, it's so much more suitable for this show than any orchestral score would have been.  That being said, every Broadway show needs an overture.  This does not have one.  Two musicians (the bandmates of the show's lead) are seen throughout the performance, playing along with prerecorded music (there was no orchestra pit).  They also manage to throw in a few "Easter Eggs," with "New Years Day" being pumped from the stereo as we see Flash Thompson's hot new car & Vertigo being played in a dance club scene.

 

The Lyrics

Unfortunately, while the music is clearly U2's sound, lyrically, I think Bono's efforts are missing something.  Forget the fact that there were several numbers where they were drowned out by the music, which while it may be typical for a rock concert does not work for a Broadway show, there's not a single full verse I can remember.  I can remember word for word songs from Wicked, Camelot, The Producers, Oliver!, Spamalot, Cabaret, whatever, not just because I've heard them so many times, but because not only were they witty & catchy & clear enough that they stuck in my head after the show.  These songs were gone almost immediately. In one ear & out the other.  That's not to say that there weren't some moments where everything gelled - from the music to the lyrics to the staging (songs like Bouncing off the Walls, Sinisterio, I'll Take Manhattan,Rise Above & The Boy Falls From The Sky work very well), but there were just as many points where one piece of the puzzle is missing & it's usually a big piece.

 

The purpose of songs in a Broadway musical is to serve the story - to move it forward.  Too often, that's not the case here.  Look at the recent three movies, let alone the 50 years of comics - to a degree, those formats have the luxury of time to develop a plot, to explore new roads forward while at the same time drawing back on familiar elements.  A Broadway musical has 2 hours & 45 minutes to present its case & prove its entertainment value.  Lyrically, this show fails to serve some all too important elements of the story - the relationship between Peter & Mary Jane, Peter's status as an outcast & the motivation of the villains, whether it's the Green Goblin or Arachne, a character created specifically for this show.

 

Using a line from the movies (which this show is certainly not afraid to do), it's all about a girl.  Peter & Mary Jane share a few duets, whether they're just trading verses or singing to each other, yet these moments that should cement for the audience why they are so right for each other almost entirely fall flat.  Maybe it's the skill of the performers, but if I am going to be convinced of their chemistry, they better at least look at each other while they sing & sing something meaningful.  Peter asks her to marry him almost out of nowhere.  It's almost silly.

 

Peter's relationship with his aunt & uncle is only glossed over.  He has only one real scene with them before his uncle is killed & when we see May later in the show, she adds nothing.  She's actually kind of worthless as a character. When I think of May, I think of Grams from Dawson's Creek, or the cartoon version from Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends,  but even that actress from the movies brought something to the table beyond that one big speech she gives in each film.  These are the people that are supposed to have given Peter his core & we never even hear Ben offer the "with great power comes..." even though Peter references it later.  Peter's school life is also given the short shrift. It's established quickly that he's an outsider, from his weird curiosity & intellect to the way he dresses.  However, there's a song with Flash & the other bullies delivered while Peter is beaten up that seemed like it'd have been the perfect opportunity to inject some much needed humor & personality into the show & that doesn't happen.  These are stererotypical high school bullies - dumb jocks with nothing to offer, which was wasted.  Even a line from Peter like "after class, they kick my  " delivered with typical Broadway seriousness would be something fun you can remember would & have been appreciated.

 

And then you have the villains. The Green Goblin & the "Sinister Six" & Arachne.  More about them when I talk about the plot, but aside from Sinisterio, which is just all about the mayhem they cause, there's not much going on.  The guy who plays Norman/Goblin is the best actor of the show & gets one good song, but unfortunately it's not the number he's introduced with.

 

The Plot

The show begins with a pivotal scene we later find is near its end where Mary Jane is hanging on for dear life & Spider-Man has to dive & rescue her.   Fair enough, but then we go to this "Geek Chorus" of 3 guys & a girl who are talking about how cool Spider-Man was/is but it's unclear who they are & how much they know.  Are they making a movie? Staging a play of their own?  Is this in the distant future? The know of Spider-Man's dual identity.  If I remember my high school drama correctly, a Greek chorus is there to comment on the action of the story in a way that links the different scenes & moves them forward.  When I first heard of this, I thought it'd work well if it played like some Batman story I remember - might have been Gotham Night? Where you had 3 or 4 kids talking about Batman as seen through their eyes.  It's almost like they're trying to do that here, but then abandon that approach midway through the show.  The Geeks get no closure.  No epilogue.  They introduce the character of Arachne, who was cursed & transformed into a spider/woman eons ago & then became some sort of cosmic entity.

 

After being established as a dorky outsider, Peter goes with his class on a field trip to Norman Osborn's DNA research center. When we're introduced to Norman, he's married & seemingly noble, although also out for a profit & dressed like a hipster Wizard of Oz.   It's here that Peter is bitten by a spider.  He goes home & wakes up the next morning with his newfound powers & starts noticing changes. Girls are looking at him, including MJ.  He makes short work of some bullies. Peter is still inferior in his own mind to Flash, so he uses his newfound abilities to enter a wrestling match & wins.  Tragedy strikes when a carjacker steals Flash's new car & kills Peter's uncle in a hit & run.

 

Peter then begins his career as Spider-Man & as his efforts are reported in the papers, we are introduced to JJ Jameson & the Daily Bugle, where Peter gets the job as a photographer.  News of Spider-Man attracts the attention of Osborn, who realizes that these abilities sound like something he was working on.  He wants to catch up to what he perceives as competition & experiments on himself resulting in the death of his wife & transformation into the Green Goblin.  Spider-Man becomes a hero to all but Jameson & defeats the various villains.

 

A year passes.  Arachne learns of Spider-Man & is drawn to him, wanting him to become more of a spider & fall for her.  She enters our realm & causes all sorts of illusions - the return of the villains that Peter had previously conquered. Peter is anxious over this & troubles with MJ - missing her performances as an actress, missing dates, etc.  He loses his powers.

 

After haunting his dreams, in a final effort to seduce him, Arachne kidnaps Mary Jane & confronts Peter.  His powers gradually return & he saves MJ, but at the same time, freeing Arachne from her curse.

 

If I could offer suggestions on the plot, they'd be the following:

 

Either completely ditch or re-imagine the Greek Chorus to the point that they're more geeky & less annoying.  Geeks can be charming & funny & they're not here.  You at least want them to be likable by the audience & maybe even serve as someone we can identify with & see the action as if it's through their eyes.  If they ditch them, build up the part of Arachne - she's essentially a goddess - make the audience see & feel that.  Her range should be seductive & operatic. Establish parallels between her story & Peter's.  Give Peter a moment where we see him change into (or out of) the Spidey costume - the Superman 'S' reveal.  The audience wants to care about these characters - wants to see them rendered in a compelling way.  They're not here.  Also, while it's arguable visually interesting, they need to commit to a time period.  While there's talk of the Internet & one of the geeks has a MacBook, the Daily Bugle staff use typewriters & notepads & dress like they're from the 1940s.

 

If people go in with the understanding they're not about to see King Lear, they'll be impressed by the visuals at the very least.

 

Acting:

Spider-Man/Peter Parker - he does just fine, although you never really see him playing two roles. Show me a physical & emotional transformation.  And Spider-Man needs wisecracks.  There aren't any.

Mary Jane Watson - a pretty redhead? I'm good.

Osborn/Goblin - the best on the stage.

Arachne - acting was fine.

 

I think all of the actors were well cast, but the book is the problem.  The story, the dialog between songs & the lyrics all need serious attention.

 

Sets, Stunts, Effects & Costumes

The best part of the show.  The stage setup is made to look like a pop-up comic book.  Pen & ink drawings of buildings & props like cameras & typewriters.  Costumes have shading worked into their patterns as if they're pulled from the page. The costumes of the villains, from the Sinister Six to random thugs, were exceptionally well-conceived.

 

They have multiple Spider-Men handling the stunts, which are fairly impressive - battles between characters on wires hanging above the audience.  Although as Peter Pan has been staged for 60 years with significant wirework, I don't get what all the trouble has been here.  Granted, there's a lot more action here (Spider-Man jumps onto the Goblin in midair at one point), which might be one of the tougher scenes.  For whatever else that went wrong, it's more likely a matter of sloppy staging.  Before the show, one of the producers even came out to introduce everything & read something from the Department of Labor to assure us that we were (probably) safe.

 

So to borrow a line from the first of the films.  Should it go back to formula?  Not quite, but it needs some serious work.

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Great review. I hope they follow your advice. From my perspective the main problem here is that, when trying to do so many good ideas at a time, they fail to finish any one of them. You can't have rock show/ awesome stunt effects/ great story/ good acting without taking some time from one of the mentioned, and the few shows that do that are few and far between.

Frankly, I'm interested about the music above all, and I wouldn't mind to see a smaller but great production that doesn't try to be the best one yet, especially considering all the financial loss it's been through.

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