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Mar 13 11: High Wire Act

Let’s begin with an open letter.

Dear Julie Taymor:

I get it. I totally get what you’re doing with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Don’t let the haters get you down.

Yours, &c. —
Andy

I was skeptical when I showed up at the theater today, I’ll admit it. It’s hard to avoid the tales of mayhem and creative rudderlessness that follow this show. But here’s the thing: there’s a lot of really smart stuff happening in the new Spider-Man musical, and this idea propagated by the Lords of Broadway Reviews that this is the worst musical evar is total hogwash.

The show, particularly in its first act, tackles some a big idea of perpetual interest to Taymor — the nature of myth, and the role it plays in human culture — through a spandex-tinted lens. She quite rightly pegs the iconic, archetypal figures that parade through the comics world as descendants of the figures who have triumphed and suffered and struggled and been punished since we first started telling one another stories of heroes around the fire. Her framing device — a “geek chorus” quartet of kids working on their own homegrown Spider-Man comic — is brilliant, linking the old oral tradition to a fundamental act of modern comics fandom in which participants mix canonical themes with new characters as it pleases them.

There are some amazing moments of Taymor stagecraft in this show, mask work and puppetry and transformative costumery that have to be seen to be appreciated. I loved seeing the horrible Lizard make the Hyde-out-of-Jekyll leap from the body of Dr. Kurt Connors, and the golden weaving constructed as the story of Arachne is retold at the top of the show marries a crazy technical achievement to a moment of beauty and simplicity that I won’t spoil here. From beginning to end, the sets tilt and flip and generally repurpose themselves over and over to create moments of outsize, stylized invention that serve the graphic roots of the story well. And, of course, there’s the extensive wire work, which is dazzling. The catch there, though, is that by now we all know about the times the system has failed, injuring actors or stopping the show cold while some poor soul is left dangling forty feet above the eighteenth row. I wish I could have blotted out that foreknowledge, the little voice saying please don’t fall, please don’t fall, please don’t fall every time a man in the red-and-blue uniform swung through the house, and just enjoyed what I was seeing for what it was. I couldn’t, though.

Regardless, I suggest that you give it a go, if you’ve got the scratch. It’s true, the music and the pacing are uneven. It’s not a perfect show. But it’s for sure not a bad show, and there’s some juicy stuff to savor in there. (Comics fans will enjoy any number of little shout-outs through dialogue and allusive imagery. The names of the scientists who worked for Norman Osborn, for example. Good stuff.) And it’s being closed down for a month soon for “improvements.” I can’t imagine that they could remove Taymor’s analytical understructure from it even if they wanted to, but I’m very glad I’ve seen it before the revamp.

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