Saturday, October 5, 2013

Spider-Man. Turn Off The Dark

SPIDER-MAN. TURN OFF THE DARK, Music and Lyrics by Bono and The Edge. Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa at the Foxwoods Theatre, 42nd Street, New York.

"Kevin, you saw SPIDERMAN?", some of my friends have asked with sceptical bewilderment.

Well, yes!

 How could I not want to see SPIDER-MAN? Besides being the current musical theatre "object of fascination" by those musical theatre nuts we all know, it is a work by Julie Taymor, the 'genius' of THE LION KING and the highly theatrical and original films: TITUS (1999), FRIDA (2002) AND ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007) THE TEMPEST (2012). Ms Taymor is a very special artist. One whose work is always interesting and explorative. It just had to be seen.

Well, for lots of other reasons, as well.

I'll confess to the obviously venal one of one-upmanship as another. I can drop it into conversations at certain dinner party tables and say: "I saw SPIDER-MAN. I saw it." and hold court for a few moments at least.

SPIDER-MAN. TURN OFF THE DARK is based on the Marvel Comic series written by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko + the film of 2002 directed by Sam Rami, starring Toby Maguire, William Dafoe and Kirsten Dunst and + the Greco-Roman Ovid METAMORPHOSES' story of Arachne - the Julie Taymor touch, no doubt. After 182 previews (!) and an estimated final cost of $75 million (the usual musical may cost between $5-12 million to mount on Broadway), it finally opened on 14th June, 2011, after a tumultuous production schedule that finally replaced Ms Taymor as director and brought in Philip Wm. Mckinley to open the production, with additional writing input by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

The company has an unenviable record for injury to performers and was, has been, carefully monitored by the Health and Safety Unions (although there was another much publicised accident last month). This is a big production and sits in the Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd St., that has a seating capacity of 1,930 (the second largest on Broadway - The Gershwin Theatre is a little larger), the huge auditorium space above the orchestra seating is capacious and suitable for the SPIDER-MAN flying scenes that lift off the stage and up above the audience, and onto the top balcony edges. This is not just the flying MARY POPPINS exit, in a theatre, which was thrilling enough, this is a terrifying flying fight (battle) between the hero and the villain high above us.. There are weekly running costs of roughly $1 million. This week it was announced that the production is struggling, as it managed only $621,960 in takings. (Only...!).


SPIDER-MAN has been described as "a rock-and-roll-circus drama". The technical feats demanded in the vision of this production are amazing. Breathtaking. The Design is complicated and mind boggling in all its complexities. The floor of the stage is in almost continuous movement, delivering new settings as the story shifts locations, framed by the most dazzling flying visual supports from the fly tower above the stage and from the wings - the proscenium arch is gigantic in proportion, width and height. It is a mechanical wonder, the towers of the city scape angled precariously, in many different variations; the research laboratory/factory of Norman Osmond dizzying and futuristically, aesthetically beautiful in its conception and execution, achieved in hard form and with video and still projections that are satisfyingly startling. The Scenic Designer is George Typsin, and not only is it a work of art, but, it seems to me, along with the flying Aerial Design: Scott Rogers, Jaque Paquin, an engineering 'nightmare' of precision. The Projections Designer is Kyle Cooper and Media Designer, Howard Werner. Lighting Design for this immense, shifting visual concoction is delivered by Donald Holder.

Add to this the Character and Costume Design by Eiko Ishioka whose film work includes two of my favourite and visually ravishing films: MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS, directed by Paul Schrader (1985) and famously, BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA directed by Francis Ford Coppola (1992). Here, from street clothes, to comic book exaggerations of high tech visions, to puppetry and live action figures the number of designs, let alone the stunning look of all, is a mammoth feast of imagination and ingenuity. One's eyes are constantly been rewarded.

What this experience ultimately amounted to, for me, was the extraordinary wonder of the visual conceptions offered to us in a two and a bit hour cascade of brilliance. The story-boarding of the visuals of this show based on the illustrations from the comic book, clearly, had/has absorbed this production team. Artistic conception and the time consuming problem-solving to technically achieve, realise, produce this work must have been immense. One can see some cause for the length of time it took to prepare this work in rehearsal (and previews) and some reason for the astronomical costs.

At some time or other in the production schedule, after finding the way to mechanically present these vision ravishments, perhaps, when the running order was beginning to find its manner and technique to gel, the conceptual artists must have suddenly seen that they had not given enough contemplation, attention to the Book, and Music of the show. The Book, apparently, by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, was not ever clear according to past critics - the Arachne interpolation to the original source material, though aspirationally inspired, may have been too ambitiously high-minded to introduce and resolve in this context - mind, you personally, I enjoyed that aspect of the show enormously, and thought it was beautifully conceived in the visuals of the show. To 'cut' or simplify those sequences would have meant further, probably, millions of dollars wasted - not an option, I imagine.The book aspect, then, is still, relatively a messy maze of ambition of integration of the production's sources. One does have to ask, "How complicated is it to tell a comic book story on the stage?" - it seems, very complicated if you add Greco Roman Myths. After all, we have seen two Charlie Brown musicals! and some Disney re-inventions from animated cartoon sources, work well.

The Music and Lyrics by Bono and The Edge, similarly, but probably because of the various contrasting story sources of such different 'classical' types/tones are not very satisfying. Ordinary, really. Maybe, too, the relative inexperience of the composers in this genre - good selling, box office hype-points, but, in hind sight, perhaps, a questionable choice. Were they available to solve the seemingly ever changing musical demands, considering their very other active career activities, plus, the then pressurised, limited time to find the timing of the technical flow of the show, with the economic demands of having to open the show to get some cash flow? It was not a problem that could be realistically, truly solvable, I guess. I thought there were a couple of songs (one and half?) of interest: "Behold and Wonder" and "No More" in act one and "I Just Can't walk Away" in act two.

The Choreography conceptions too, probably suffered in the planned executions, as the sheer technical solvings needed to be discovered, and probably not revealed until the actual stage settings were synchronised - and they must have taken some time. Nothing of much interest happens, or seems to happen dance wise in this show, maybe, because the 'choreography' of the mechanics of the actual stage settings are so immense, and so immensely arresting, interesting, that I was distracted from the little humans on the stage 'jumping about', although, the aerial 'stuff' is indeed, impressive. Choreography and aerial choreography was by Daniel Ezralow, with additional choreography by Chase Brock. Mr Ezralow seems to have been working in big dance shows with Cirque de Soliel ( LOVE) or the Taymor film (ACROSS THE UNIVERSE) or opera (THE FLYING DUTCHMAN) and that experience shows. The usual dance routines seemed a little neglected and derivative in contrast!?

There is a huge company of performers who all do a sterling job. Besides the triple threat of having to act/sing/ dance, the life saving concentration needs, I mean, literally, 'life saving' concentrations, must be a very big energy consuming distraction every time. This, literally, is a life or death performance every night. I was impressed, particularly, by the principals, by Robert Cuccioli as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin; Jake Odmark as Flash, one of the bullies; and every now and again with Justin Matthew Sergeant as Peter Parker/Spider-man. This is a big complicated, dangerous show and the cast and crew must hold on to their courage at every beginning, and be immensely relieved when it finishes every night. They deserve kudos, all.

I read that some European entrepreneurs are interested in taking on the production, but mostly in arena spaces. I should think so. In fact, I thought, SPIDER-MAN may have been better produced in one of those amazing theatres in Las Vegas. Yet, this is what Broadway is about , I guess - innovation, courage and leadership. (Hmmm?) It's just a pity it costs so much. SPIDER-MAN may be the last of the monster technical shows! Who knows? Economics, finally, speaks louder than art, especially in this real Broadway world.

I was certainly glad I saw SPIDER-MAN. It is technically impressive. It is visually, often, stunning. I was, however, only an admirer and observer of this show with not much emotional attachment to the story or the characters. And I do think that that attachment is the most important element in the theatre experience. Unless you come as comic book fan of SPIDER-MAN, you may not get that, at all, from this show. I didn't.

Certainly, it convinces me, further, that the writing (Book, Muisc, Lyrics) must be as right as possible before you begin any project in any of the plastic arts -theatre, film, television. If it is not, the risk of failure is enormous, particularly, economic failure. The writers are the Gods we should venerate. Not the visual conceptualists. Get the writing right and you can, relatively, move forward, confidently. And, may have a success. Never guaranteed, but more probable than not.

I bought my tickets in Times Square at the Half-Tix booth and it was very much worth the 70 odd bucks. At that rate, I can highly recommend it, and believe anyone interested in the mechanics of the theatre ought not to miss it. The design elements to create the amazing images of set, costume and lighting are also worth it, believe me.

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