Monday, January 2, 2012

The Worst Show of 2011

Here it is, folks.  The moment you’ve all been waiting for.  There have been some truly odious shows in our countdown, but this last one takes the cake as the single worst piece of theatre I had the misfortune of seeing in 2011.  That show is (drumroll please)….

Spider-Man:  Turn Off the Dark

A scene from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

Now, some of you might think I am being unnecessarily harsh on a show that spent all of 2011 (and much 2010) as Broadway’s whipping boy.  Does the much-maligned megamusical really need to be further abused in print after all of the malicious things written about it in the past 12 months?

Yes.  Yes it does.  Because, my friends, any of you who actually saw Spider-Man know that it may possibly be even worse than the press has let on.  Let’s forget, for a moment, that the idea of a Spider-Man musical is already a patently terrible idea.  There is already a level of absurd fantasy in the idea of masked men with superpowers beating the snot out of each other.  Having these characters break out into song pushes things way past the point of credibility.  By musicalizing a superhero story, you also force yourself into the very expensive and danger-prone realm of having to physically execute feats of daring-do eight times a week.

But even if we forget that the concept is irrevocably busted from the start, Spider-Man remains such a poorly plotted, underwritten mess that many of the 8-year-olds in the audience have written better Spidey stories while playing with their action figures.  This is even more infuriating given that the writers of Turn Off the Dark (which is an awful, nonsensical subtitle that it pains me to type) have chosen to focus on Spider-Man’s origin story, something that has been done repeatedly in other mediums, and done well.  What should have been a simple matter of copying what has worked before is completely bungled by the inept writers, leaving a show with plot holes so big you could easily drive the show’s massive set pieces through them.

While I am more than familiar with Spider-Man’s comic book history, I am by no means a purist.  I accept that certain details will need to be altered or updated to make the show work for modern audiences.  That is fine.  What isn’t fine is to see a show that completely alters the basic personality traits of a plethora of beloved characters, and then fails to successful execute those changes.  I don’t know what comics Julie Taymor and company have been reading, but Aunt May has never been as sarcastic and mean-spirited as she is in this show.  Mary Jane may come from a broken home, but I barely recognize the sullen emo girl running around the Foxwoods Theatre stage.  It certainly isn’t the self-assured redhead whose famous first words to Peter Parker were, “Face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot.”  By altering these traits, the show completely throws the characters’ interpersonal dynamics out of whack, and doesn’t bother to replace them with interesting or believable new ones.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the acting is uniformly terrible.  I’m sure all the behind-the-scenes drama and months of tech work weren’t conducive to the acting process, but dammit, this is Broadway, and I expect a certain standard of work for my $100 ticket.  Many of the actors seem utterly lost onstage, as if they have never before set foot in a theatre.  Save for Patrick Page as the Green Goblin, the leads lack believability, chemistry, and the ability to sing on-pitch, with all of the show’s vocals sounding unbearably flat.

Which brings us to the atrocious pop-rock score by Bono and the Edge.  I am not a U2 fan, but I have to believe that the multiple Grammy-winners are capable of much better than the garbage they’ve written for Spider-Man.  Every song sounded the same (bad), with the “orchestra” (I use quotation marks because I didn’t hear more than 6 instruments the night I saw it) and singers so out of balance that it’s laughable.  There’s also a cast-wide diction problem, but given the quality of the lyrics I could understand I don’t think I’m missing much.  At least the songs are repetitive, giving the audience multiple chances to decipher what is going on.

And what did that reported $75 million budget get spent on, exactly?  The show I saw didn’t look any more impressive than something like Wicked, which while still expensive cost only a fraction of the amount spent on this disaster.  I didn’t find the much-ballyhooed stunts to be overly impressive, despite the producers repeated promises that it would be unlike anything I’d ever seen.  The various wires and flying apparatuses are blatantly apparent, and everything moves at such a slow pace that it saps any excitement from the aerial battles.  I should point out that I am all for the actors’ safety; I just feel that for that amount of money, they should have been able to come up with something that looked more impressive while still remaining safe.

The most disheartening thing about Spider-Man is that so far, it has been a financial success, proving that a large portion of the theatergoing public doesn’t give a rat’s ass about quality.  I can only urge all of you to avoid this show like the plague.  If you think it’s going to be a fun, Showgirls-like debacle, you are wrong.  While certainly a train wreck, it isn’t the least bit of fun, and is easily the Worst Show of 2011.

Note:  These observations are based on Julie Taymor’s original version, not the revised show currently playing the Foxwoods.  While the new version is reportedly better, the show I saw was so far gone that I cannot imagine they made enough improvements during the three week hiatus to salvage the endeavor.  For one thing, they were stuck working around Taymor’s costumes, sets, and aerial stunts, since all of these elements were far too expensive to simply throw out.  And given that Taymor’s version ran for five months, longer than several of the shows on my Best and Worst lists, I feel absolutely no qualms about naming it the Worst Show of 2011.

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