Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On Salvaging SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK

by Oliver Oliveros

Why do we care to save a disastrous Broadway musical about a classic superhero that most theater insiders think is too problematic and New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley claims is "so grievously broken in every aspect that it's beyond repair"? It's because we saw the professionalism and the hard work the actors put into that show amid the bad press and poorly written material.

We watched the matinee preview performance of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on the same day producers Michael Cohl and Jeremiah Harris announced to the cast that its director and co-book writer, Julie Taymor, was leaving the production and its opening date was moved yet again to midsummer to install more script revisions.

We understand why Taymor had to make a graceful exit from the show. Apart from the occasions when actors literally fell into the orchestra pit or got stuck in mid-air, Spider-Man needs a lot of rethinking in the writing department: the "geek chorus," a bunch of high-school kids narrating the show, is too amateurish, and Arachne, a spiderwoman who bit Peter Parker during the early part of Act 1, and shopped for shoes in the middle of Act 2, creates a love triangle between Parker, Mary Jane Watson and herself that's utterly senseless.

Despite the show's flawed writing, it's the production's actors, who exude positive attitude and non-stop energy on stage, that got the audiences on their feet at curtain call.

We spoke with Matthew James Thomas, a young British actor who plays Peter Parker/Spider-man twice a week, right after his performance. In that brief conversation, we made a joke about audiences bringing their own plastic helmets because stuntmen in their Spider-man costumes had to fly high above the audience at some parts of the show. That joke didn't offend Thomas. He even shared with us that he's been "very proud" to be doing some of the flying stunts himself during the finale, and to be "working with a cast and crew who've been committed to make Spider-man work since day one."

While speaking with Thomas, we also noticed that Christopher Tierney, the stuntman who broke several ribs and needed back surgery after falling nearly 30 feet from the stage into the orchestra pit last December, was still part of the cast. Tierney can come back to the show "any time he wants," Cohl said.

Actors' Equity Association President Nick Wyman had also been amazed at the actors' resilience in times of crisis. "I love the passion that has been shown by Equity actors in defense of our fellow members; I love their insistence that we have to be taken care of and protected," he said.

Spider-Man temporarily closed at the Foxwoods Theatre on April 17 so that its new director, Philip William McKinley; its new co-book writer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa; and its original songwriters, Bono and The Edge of U2, could overhaul the production in the next three months.

With a production that costs around $65 Million, Spider-man has been often cited as Broadway's most expensive in history. Recent safety violations, stunning upsets and dramatic turns of events created media frenzy. Nevertheless, the people behind the beleaguered production would rather defy Broadway's economic realities and the public's clamor to shut down the show. We support that course of action because the high level of professionalism and the infectious optimism emanating from actors like Thomas and Tierney are more than enough reasons to make salvaging Spider-man the better option than calling it quits.