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'Spider-Man' deftly spins substance, spectacle

USA Today, February 08, 2011
By: Elysa Gardner

 

Broadway's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark won't open until March 15, but by now you've probably heard a few rumblings.

The $65 million collaboration between U2's Bono and The Edge and celebrated director Julie Taymor has seen its opening pushed back several times. Injuries also have made news, not to mention comic monologues.

What has been less widely reported is this: Beyond the offstage drama and lavish budget, and all the feats and flash accompanying them, lies an endearingly old-fashioned musical.

Spider-Man's primary goal -- based on a preview this critic saw last week -- is to tell a thrilling, moving story through song, dialogue and, yes, a little razzle-dazzle. OK, a lot of razzle-dazzle -- and not much of it old-fashioned.

At the preview, a crewmember warned the audience in advance that the production could be halted at any time for technical reasons. The show was stopped once, briefly, then proceeded without a hitch.

History has taught us to be wary of musicals boasting too many bells and whistles, but substance and spectacle aren't always mutually exclusive. In January, Taymor, also Spider-Man's co-writer, spoke to USA TODAY about using technology and circus-like acrobatics to help propel a narrative involving a reluctant hero "pulled between the responsibility that comes with his powers and his desire to be a regular man."

Taymor and Glen Berger's libretto provides Peter Parker, Spider-Man's sweetly nerdy alter ego, with two love interests, including Arachne, a mythical figure who evolves from protector to seductress to nemesis. The underlying humanity of all characters is stressed; Peter's ambivalence makes Spider-Man more heroic, just as the frustrated ambitions fueling scientist Norman Osborn's transformation into the Green Goblin make that super-villain more chilling.

And while the state-of-the-art visuals can be stunning -- not just the aerial sequences, but Kyle Cooper's blazing projection design -- some of the most affecting touches are low-tech. Before Spider-Man first takes flight, the dancers doing his stunts leap and twitch like giddy children perfecting a new trick.

Bono and Edge's songs aspire to the same emotional sweep. In a USA TODAY interview in November, Bono described the "operatic" scope of U2's music. There are tunes here, melodic and undeniably theatrical, that confirm that determination to transcend sentimentality that links them to tunesmiths from Bruce Springsteen to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

For more, tune in again in March. But know this for now: Spider-Man's creative team is trying to bring musical theater back to the future. And that's a mission worth rooting for.

© USA Today, 2011.



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