Did revamp of 'Spider-Man' musical do enough to save itself?

'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' debuted on Broadway Tuesday. It was a revamped version of the unfinished show critics panned in February.

By , Staff writer

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    The principal actors of 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' take a curtain call for the opening night performance in New York Tuesday.
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Now that the Broadway megamusical, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” finally officially opened Tuesday night, the question is in: Can it beat the bad reviews that just won’t go away? The New York Times calls it a “bore.” The Wall Street Journal dubs it “witless.” The Hollywood Reporter tags it a “bloated monster.”

To critics, the musical, with its outsize reliance on flying stunts, is just another example of the dumbing down of the Great White Way. To "Spider-Man" fans who bristle at that treatment, the show is simply getting the same upturned noses from the high-brow crowd that all comic book fare does.

In its record 183 preview shows – fully staged dry runs before the "official" opening – "Spider Man" has done steady business since November. While not selling out, it has taken in roughly $1.2 million weekly, according to the Broadway League. Fan response has also been good.

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But $1.2 million a week is barely more than the reported weekly expenses for the logistical behemoth. While the musical could maintain its theater run with such a fragile margin, it would take decades – if ever – to recoup the estimated $75 million budget that went into the show’s creation, more than double the price tag of any previous Broadway show.

In such perilous economic times, “when you see people abusing money this way, it really opens up the gates to criticism,” says Vincent Zurzolo, a pop culture expert at Metropolis Collectibles in Manhattan.

The show has drawn media heat from its inception. There was the high-profile roster of talent, including director Julie Taymor of “Lion King” fame alongside rock stars Bono and the Edge of U2 on board for their first effort in a musical. When the show began its run of preview performances in November, there were serious cast injuries that landed talent in the hospital and which prompted a state inquiry into safety violations.

A series a bad reviews in February, when several media outlets grew exasperated by the sheer number of preview performances and decided to chime in before opening night, prompted producers to fire Ms. Taymor and revamp the show. Playwright Glenn Berger, one of the show’s original co-authors, says the production’s mix of high-profile brand names, big talent, and money have made it a target from the beginning.

But he defends the vision at the heart of the musical. “We think there is a show families can thrill to,” he says, adding that he takes his cue from the way audiences responded in the theater every night. “If we had thought the whole idea was hopeless, we wouldn’t have bothered to try to save it.”

In one positive sign, the reviews for the revamped version launched Tuesday appeared to be significantly better than those in February. The website StageGrade, which aggregates various critics' reviews, gave the show a C+.

But it still gave critics ample opportunity to bemoan "Spider-Man" as further evidence of the watering-down of the great American musical. Classics such as “Oklahoma!” combined great character development, music, and crowd-pleasing spectacles in all the right proportion, says Larry Stempel, a professor of music at New York’s Fordham University.

“The production had an integrity that has made it last,” he says. The real problem with "Spider-Man," he adds, is that the circus acrobatics can't hide a thin, poorly developed narrative.

But comic books have a history of being “disrespected,” says comic book expert Julian Chambliss, an associate professor of history at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.

He suggests that some of the animosity toward the production stems from this disdain toward the genre itself. Look closely at the underlying mythos of "Spider-Man," he says. “These are timeless themes that we see in great literature throughout history."

He suggests that fan response to the show is overwhelmingly positive. “There has always been this disconnect between the repositories of high- and low-brow culture,” he says.

While the show may not match up to lofty Broadway standards, that doesn’t mean it won’t speak to many people. “Peter Parker is everyman, the average kid just trying to get by,” he says. “Whatever the problems with this show, they will keep working on it until it works. And people will come. It is a classic story.”

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