A tangled web

"Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" • A musical based on the Marvel Comics character • Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa • Music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge • Foxwoods Theater, 42nd St. & Broadway, NYC • Open-ended run

After seven months of previews, a slew of broken bones, a hasty rewrite and a major shake-up in the creative team, the long-gestating musical "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark" celebrated its official Broadway opening last Tuesday night. But while the rigging and harnesses kept the actors afloat, they could do nothing to lift either the simplistic script or the uneven score written by U2's Bono and The Edge.

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Based on the Marvel comic hero, "The Amazing Spider-Man," the show centers on a geeky but brilliant high-school loner, Peter Parker (Reeve Carney), his love interest, Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano), and his nemesis, the Green Goblin (Patrick Page). In a nutshell, Parker, the target of school bullies, is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops super-human strength; his web-spinning ability allows him to scale buildings and immobilize enemies. Like all superheroes, he hides his identity to protect his loved ones — but the Goblin sees through his ruse and targets Peter's beloved Mary Jane, leaving her dangling from the top of the Chrysler Building. Mayhem ensues. Spidey saves the day. Anyone who has ever read a comic book can fill in the blanks.

As originally conceived by Julie Taymor, the creative spirit behind the stage version of Disney's "The Lion King,” the show featured a "geek" chorus to comment on the action, and a love interest / nemesis, Arachne (played by T.C. Carpio), as the mythological spinner who angered the gods and was turned into a spider. Taymor's version was deemed too complicated, lacking a clear plot, and filled with dangerous stunts that sent actors to the emergency room and safety inspectors into fits. Eventually, the producers fired Taymor, reworked the stunts and decluttered the story. The question is: did it work?

The answer, like the original concept, is rather complicated.

"Spider-Man" is a crowd-pleaser, in the broadest sense of the term. There's not much character development -- the romance between Peter and MJ seems superficial; the Green Goblin's backstory (tragedy turns brilliant scientist into a villain) is rather clichéd. Arachne’s role is a bit confusing – she’s both Peter’s protector and nemesis. There's a side plot about Peter covering Spider-Man for the Daily Bugle and its blustery editor, J. Jonah Jameson (Michael Mulheren in an appropriately cartoonish performance).

Things pick up after Page's transformation into the campy, scenery-chewing Goblin. The parade of evil henchmen is dazzling – particularly the dinosaur and the silver vixen whose boobs shoot sparks. Spidey is run ragged trying to protect the citizens of New York, secure a regular paycheck as well as be an attentive boyfriend: when he misses the opening night of MJ's first big play, she is ready to give him his walking papers. Meanwhile, he's got to save The Big Apple from the bad guys, try to reform the Goblin, and convince his Aunt May (Isabel Keating) to stay indoors so the Goblin won't get her. What's a spider-man to do?

This being a musical, the natural thing would be to break into song. Unfortunately, the material provided by Bono and The Edge isn't up to the task of moving the story forward. The best numbers sound like generic U2 songs, and seem only tangentially related to the action; the worst are just bad. There are a few beautiful ballads - "Rise Above" (sung by Carney) and "If the World Should End" (a duet between Carney and Damiano), but they don’t quite make up for clunkers like "DIY World" and "Bullying by Numbers." The title number, "Turn off the Dark," sung by Carpio, was pleasant, but seemed out of place. "A Freak Like Me Needs Company," sung by the Goblin and his evil cohort, was both catchy and campy. If Bono and The Edge decide to tackle Broadway again, they should study the work of fellow rockers Elton John ("The Lion King," "Aida," "Billy Elliott") and Phil Collins ("Tarzan") to get some insight into tailoring their music to the demands of a narrative show.

Speaking of U2, the fact that Bono and The Edge wrote the music is, understandably, a major marketing point, but the show goes overboard with self-referential touches: the Goblin's cell phone ring tone is "Beautiful Day"; one character shouts out that there will be a "Sunday Bloody Sunday"; in a disco scene, the characters dance to (what else?) "Vertigo"; MJ stars in a show called "The Fly." It makes you wonder if the guys were worried about getting shortchanged on the royalty deal.

So, the question remains: is "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" worth the price of admission? It depends on your expectations. It's more spectacle than spectacular - more "Celtic Tiger" than "Riverdance." Despite its truly breathtaking flying sequences, the show remains disappointingly earthbound.