Above: Scene from Spider-Man 2.0 with Jennifer Damiano, Reeve Carney and Patrick Page. Photo by Jacob Cohl.
It is challenging to recreate Spider-Man when audiences have already seen countless movies on the subject with very sophisticated visual effects, but this show was actually was more exciting than any Spider-Man movie I have seen, because it is one thing to look at a screen, and another altogether to actually experience people flying above your head. The aerial acrobatics were beyond expectations – and obviously very dangerous. I have seen flying trapeze acrobatics at the circus, but always with a net. There was no net for the Spider-Men. I have to admire the courage of these dedicated performers, suspended in mid-air by what looked like very thin and near invisible strings.
The music sounds great – almost like a produced recording, with everything mixed perfectly, which would be expected with such seasoned rock songwriters and producers as Bono and The Edge from the rock band U2. With U2, they have released 12 studio albums and are among the best-selling groups in popular music, having sold more than 150 million records worldwide and won 22 Grammy Awards, more than any other band. Bono is also known for his charity work. They even wrote more tunes (music and lyrics) for this newly refined iteration of the show. A team of no less than eight copyists assisted them in getting the score done. It is orchestrated rock music, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, with 18 musicians including three guitars, two basses, drums, keyboards, percussion, violin, viola, cello, two trumpets, French horn, Trombone/Tuba and reeds. The musicians, although invisible because of the staging, were certainly audible. I have a special connection with two of them.*
The performance generally had a glossy perfection of delivery, which is attributable in part to excellent use of technology, and in part to a very thorough rehearsal process. My personal favorites were the more out-and-out rock moments with lots of guitars, especially “Bouncing off the walls” where Peter’s red room walls are exploded into four movable panels, and he walks on each, defying gravity, upside down, hanging from the ceiling…
I can’t even begin to describe the staging (originally by Julie Taymor, and recently reworked by Philip William McKinley) which is something amazing to experience. I recognized Julie Taymor’s magic touch in the machinery, masks and puppetry, and a playful use of size and suspension. Some of the scenic designs by George Tsypin create a multidimensional environment where somehow, off-axis perspectives converge into deep space. The aerial choreography by Daniel Ezralow has multiple “Spider-Men” literally flying above the seats, occasionally throwing spider webs (spaghetti-like paper strips) into the audience.
Reeve Carney playing Peter Parker/Spider-Man performed with confidence and charisma, and with just the right amount of rock star grit – born in New York City in a musical family, he has his own rock band with his brother Zane who also plays guitar in Spider-Man. Reeve Carney was really exciting to watch and able to sing perfectly from whatever position – upside down, up in the air – which is no small feat. Even his hair was perfectly messy in a style I haven’t seen since the late 70s on my drummer in Orchestre Modern.
The story created by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is a full narrative alternating reality and fantasy. The first scenes are poetic and universal: women on ochre cloth swings – think of Christo’s The Gates in Central Park a few years back, but imagine people swinging off of them. Arachne, the Spider Lady performed by the amazing T.V. Carpio, sings suspended in mid-air; she seems to be hanging herself with a rope, before she appears later fully developed as a human insect, with a moving machinery of huge spider legs surrounding her, hovering several feet above the stage. In a nightmarish vision of New York City where the buildings are askew, Peter Parker is a high-school nerd with a scientific interest. He visits a laboratory where he gets bitten by a spider. He suddenly feels strong and wins a wrestling match again a giant inflatable puppet. As Spider-Man he battles gangsters and muggers with oversized heads. A newspaper man, J.J. (possibly a reference to the J.J. journalist character in the 1950s film classic The Sweet Smell of Success) wants to get the story. He hires Peter to take photos of Spider-Man. Meanwhile the mad scientist voluntarily mutates himself into a giant iguana or Godzilla creature and he is joined by a wild assortment of super-monsters. On a fire escape suspended in mid-air, Peter and Mary Jane talk about how long it takes to get from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side by subway… an up-to-date comment on life in New York. On the whole, the show is joyful and uplifting, and in a way, really un-pretentious.
I have to admit that I have always been an American popular culture aficionado, and had many a rock band back then, so I was naturally very interested in seeing the show. It actually was beyond my expectation. This new Spider-Man is pure Americana: the old Marvel Comics myth is revisited with humor and sophistication. With its extremely daring and imaginative staging, flawless performances, and the intensity and sincerity of the music, and I am certain this show will sustain a long life on Broadway.
*Note: Two of the musicians in Spider-Man have performed in my operas. Cellist Anja Wood performed in my Deus Ex Machina and Bill Ruyle performed in my Waking in New York and my Two-Cents Opera at Theater for the New City. I also play with Bill in the band Arthur’s Landing, on occasion. I love Bill’s work on the hammered dulcimer but I didn’t hear much of it in this version, my only regret.