Playing at the Foxwoods Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street, New York. For tickets and additional information, visit spidermanonbroadway.marvel.com. Reviewed October 19, 2011 (afternoon show).
Directed by Philip Wm. McKinley; Original Direction by Julie Taymor. Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger & Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Music and Lyrics by Bono and The Edge. By arrangement with Marvel Entertainment.
After months of rewrites, accidents, and punchlines, the most expensive musical ever made has made its way to 42nd Street, a locale just as flashy as the show itself. And how does it fare? Surprisingly better than I expected.
As the tale of the Marvel Comics hero is brought to the stage, the first act for the most part faithfully retells the well-known origin story of how Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider which gave him superhuman abilities, as he learns the hard way to use them to help others rather than for personal gain- "with great power comes great responsibility." Norman Osborn, the scientist whose escaped genetically-enhanced spider caused the transformation, becomes obsessed with human-animal hybrids and transforms himself into the sinister-yet-silly madman known as the Green Goblin, who, along with his fellow scientists he has kidnapped and similarly mutated into a team known as the Sinister Six, start terrorizing the city. Peter Parker must now make a delicate balance between his ordinary life and his would-be love Mary Jane and his self-appointed duties as the savior of New York City. Is it possible for him to do both?
There's no doubt what the answer to that question is, but the true test of any musical is not what happens, but how it's told. And Spider-Man does it very well. The visuals are impressive and creative, with a bit of comic-book flair to them and a tiny bit of comic-book campiness- but not too much. Color and minimalist comic-like set design is used to good effect, from the yellows of the bullies and the walls of Peter's high school to the blue and pink houses that match the clothes of Peter and MJ as they walk home from school to the black and white of the city in a fun sequence features Spider-Man fighting crime throughout the city with the bad guys represented by cartoonish costumed actors with oversized heads to the red and blue which matches Spidey's suit that covers the city as he becomes the hero of all...well, mostly all. The show seems to be set in modern times yet has a "timeless" quality- the boisterous J. Jonah Jameson, the newspaper editor who prints negative stories about Spider-Man while at the same time employing Parker to take pictures of the "menace", remarks that print is losing ground to bloggers and Facebook, yet with a cadre of '60s-style secretaries on typewriters in unison behind him. And the show itself seems to have a bit of fun with its stylistic choices- when Parker battles a wrestler before he learns he's going down the wrong path, the ring announcer remarks that Parker is tossing him around like an inflatable doll...which he is, since it is one.
With the exception of the Green Goblin's number that opens the second act and Spider-Man's leitmotif played throughout the musical, none of the songs are really stick-in-your-head, but they do a good job of bringing the story along. Patrick Page in particular is entertaining as the Green Goblin, hamming it up as only he can and being responsible for most of the goofy-yet-enjoyable humor in the musical, be it singing about "a 65-million-dollar trainwreck" (referring, of course, to both himself and the musical) as he comes out into the audience, performing a violent rewrite of "I'll Take Manhattan" on top of the Chrysler Building, or trying to leave a message for Jameson in one of the most prolonged and funniest of the comic sequences.
And then there's the flying. The element that everyone was talking about, both before and after the incidents, it's just, for lack of a better word, really cool to see Spider-Man fly across the stage, no matter what your age. The climax of the musical, in which Spidey and the Green Goblin soar across the city in a final duel, is arguably worth the price of admission alone. My advice is to sit in the center level of the theater, which has been renamed the "Flying Circle" for this production for good reason. It gives you the best view of the aerial action, and the web-slinger himself even flies past and crouches on the outskirts of the area a number of times, much to the delight of the audience.
I didn't see the show in its original form, so I'm not sure what has changed from it. But it's clear that the new team that took Julie Taymor's place was able to work out most of the kinks. There are still a few flaws, however, the biggest of which is a remnant of Taymor's original version- Arachne, a character based on the Greek mythological figure who originally had a much larger role, but in the final version whose legend serves as a prologue and appears a few times throughout the musical as sort of a god-like figure to give Peter the strength he needs to carry on when he's in a deep funk. For the most part she's easily ignorable, but she still seems out of place when compared to the whole package.
Some people may be turned off by the slight comic-book campiness and occasional goofy humor, but let's be honest. This isn't Shakespeare. This is a musical based on a comic book about a man who wears a spider costume and flies around buildings. If you think about it, it's rather silly. But it's also, again for lack of a better term, pretty cool. You pretty much know what you're getting. If you're looking for a musical that's equal parts spectacle and silliness with a flashy visual flair, you can't go wrong with Spider-Man. The flashy, tourist-oriented swarth of 42nd Street and Broadway is perhaps the perfect place for it- if all goes well, it will hopefully become a tourist attraction and a New York City institution. And given what it took for it to get there, that wouldn't particularly be a bad thing.