Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark - show and soundtrack album review

Now they have a reason to kiss. Spider-Man stars Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano during the show's finale. © Walter McBride/Corbis

One goes into a performance of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark with the lowest of expectations and a bizarrely nagging yet unavoidable thought bubble: "So what does a train wreck really look like?"

It can't be helped: The multiple delayed openings, the record-breaking previews (something like 183, but who's counting?), along with a record-breaking budget ($75 million already, and you can be sure someone's counting), numerous injuries to cast members, disastrous early reviews, the departure of original director Julie Taymor and a much-publicized overhauling, and so on. Anticipating the worst is, at the point, understandable.

But guess what? The retooled, rebooted 2.0 version of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark - Bono and The Edge's comic-book musical vision - that opened (finally!) at the Foxwoods Theater in New York City last night (14 June) is a whopping good time from start to finish, a wowie-zowie entertainment that whooshes over you - quite literally - with charm and considerable ease. Whether it had to take as much time, money, injured actors and bruised egos to get there is debatable, but in the end the play's the thing, and this thing is quite playful, indeed.

Apparently, much has changed since version 1.0, the incarnation that was roasted royally by impatient theatre critics who broke the embargo and ripped the production to pieces last January. Director Philip William McKinley and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa were brought on board, the show went dark (pun intended) for several weeks, and Bono and The Edge set about writing some new songs.

All to good effect: The "geek chorus" of fanboys who served as narrators are gone, and the story, which was seen as convoluted and confusing, is streamlined. In many ways, the plot now resembles a quick-read of the 2002 big-screen treatment, and that's not a diss - there was real heart and soul in the love story between our man Peter Parker/Spider-Man and girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson, and that glow is front and center on stage. As it should be.

The presence of a still-inexplicable character called Arachnie, played by T.V. Carpio, has been whacked down to a sliver, while The Green Goblin, portrayed by the almost-show-stealing Patrick Page, has been awarded ample story and stage time. As he's the central villain, bumping the Goblin up to third billing makes obvious duh! sense. And Page is a hoot, too, delivering some of the show's best lines and belting out his numbers with considerable gusto.

If you know the plot of the first Sam Rami/Tobey Maguire collaboration, no more explanation is needed. The keys to this we-finally-got-it-right! production are the two leads, Reeve Carney as Parker/Spider-Man, and Jennifer Damiano, both of whom exude mega star wattage and sing thunderous rock and poignant ballads with passion and, when called for, gritty conviction. Then there's the sets, which run the gamut between summer stock good (the wrestling match between Spidey and Bonesaw McGraw) to breathtaking (a vertiginous view of Manhattan from the top of the Chrysler Building).

Of course, there are the already famous aerial maneuvers. While I didn't attend one of the early previews, during which there were troubles a-plenty, I can officially report that superheroes (a dozen or so Spider-Man-suited stuntmen) can fly across the theater and summersault over your head - hell, they practically jump onto your lap! - in ways that will leave you slack-jawed in disbelief. Take one part Marvel Comics, one part Barnum and Bailey, a third part Cirque du Soleil and stir briskly. Viola! - you've got yourself a look-up-in-the-sky! feast for the senses.

OK, but what about the tunes? Have Bono and The Edge served up a lemon or have they given U2 fans something they don't want to leave behind? We'll dive into that matter in our review of Music From Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark on the next page.

At a pre-show listening party for the soundtrack last week, Bono posited the notion that he and The Edge, along with the rest of U2 (although Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr are not involved with the Spidey musical), oftentimes do their best work when they have no idea what they're doing.

And indeed, a glorious disregard for established Broadway-isms (mixed with a healthy dash of naivete) prevails in the music they have written for Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. The soundtrack album, featuring the original cast and produced by longtime U2 boardsman Steve Lillywhite, may not rival War, The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby for uber-greatness (and perhaps it shouldn't be judged against those classics), but it's a fascinating and thrilling listen, whether you know or care about the Spider-Man story - or the Great White Way, for that matter.

In many ways, Bono and The Edge took the hard road. Whereas Pete Townshend and Billie Joe Armstrong penned their rock operas first and film and stage treatments came later, the U2 duo saddled themselves with the task of writing a collection of songs that would tell a well-known tale but still conjure a sense of newness. That they've done so is no small feat.

Although the U2 duo might have attempted to dial down aspects of their sonic palette, they can't kill who they are entirely. This is especially true for The Edge: the telegraph-like guitar clicks that introduce the rousing overture, NY Debut, have graced U2 gems for decades, and the wild six-string lines that inform the slam-bang rocker Bouncing Off The Walls are torn right from the pages of Vertigo, or even The Fly.

Most of the musical heavy lifting is left to singers Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano, and while Carney at times sounds like he's channeling Bono, he's a forceful, authoritative vocalist. Carney's real-life band, Carney (how's that for an easy-to-remember name?), provides the lion's share of the instrumentation, and they're a vigorous, elastic unit. Drummer Jon Epcar pushes the arrangements with a style that is heavy-on-the-cymbals flash but tempered by solid, crafty choices - imagine U2 with a slightly less unhinged Keith Moon and you'll get the idea.

Bono and The Edge turn up on Picture This and Rise Above 1, which are amongst the strongest numbers. They have the weight and hookiness of singles - possible standards even. A large part of their appeal, however, may be due to what remind you of: U2. Picture This features a euphoric ride-out that mirrors the dramatic swells of The Three Sunrises (a B-side that was featured on the EP Wide Awake In America).

A Freak Like Me Needs Company finds Patrick Page as The Green Goblin providing campy comic relief, while on the flipside, the sinister, relentlessly throbbing Pull The Trigger recalls Wall-era Pink Floyd.

Overall, Music From Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is a supreme triumph of sweaty-palms daring-do, with Bono and The Edge confidently marching through a forest with no compass and arriving home with an album that can stand on its own merits. That's big stuff. Superheroes and mere mortals alike will be humming along for years to come.


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