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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

First photos from Broadway's $60 Million 'Spider Man' arrive

In 1962, the Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee came up with a story about a teenage geek named Peter Parker who gets bitten by a radioactive spider at a science exhibit and discovers that he has acquired superhuman strength, extrasensory perception, and the ability to crawl up walls—not to mention a flair for costume design. As drawn by Steve Ditko, a cultural icon named Spider-Man was born, and since then he has swung from the comic-book page to the cineplex screen and into our dream life, fighting crime on the streets of New York and protecting mankind from villains bent on global domination. Now the world’s most famous webslinger is facing his scariest adversaries yet—New York theater critics and audiences—as Julie Taymor’s long-delayed rock musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, with songs by U2’s Bono and the Edge, finally drops in on Broadway in January.

On a fall afternoon shortly before the start of previews, the many thousand moving parts of the $60 million production—already infamous as the most expensive of all time—are still syncing up inside the newly renamed Foxwoods Theatre (no gambling jokes, please) on Forty-second Street. In one rehearsal room, the Edge is listening to vocal arrangements. In another, the choreographer Daniel Ezralow, a Momix founder and frequent Taymor collaborator, is working with a group of arachno–chorus girls, who, requiring eight stiletto heels each, could be described as unusually leggy. Onstage, Spider-Man (Reeve Carney) and the Green Goblin (Patrick Page) duke it out on the roof of set designer George Tsypin’s pop-up Roy Lichtenstein–meets–Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Chrysler Building as Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano), trussed in a harness courtesy of the aerial-rigging designer Jaque Paquin, dangles fetchingly from a stone gargoyle.

In the middle of it all, wearing a headset microphone, sits Taymor, back on Broadway following her 1997 triumph with The Lion King. Slim and snub-nosed, the 58-year-old director still exudes the passion and precocity of the bohemian enfant terrible who burst on the scene in the early eighties with visually stunning pieces rooted in the rituals of Asian theater—masks, puppets, dance—and the power of mythology. And though she hasn’t exactly been letting the savanna grass grow under her feet since The Lion King (her acclaimed Metropolitan Opera production of The Magic Flute and her new film adaptation of The Tempest open this month), it is that show, a marriage of avant-garde stage wizardry and Disney schmaltz, that remains her signal achievement. Instead of trying to reproduce the movie, Taymor took the bold step of transforming it into a purely theatrical experience, creating magic by exposing all her tricks—those giraffes were clearly actors on stilts—and inviting audiences to take an imaginative leap.

It’s not difficult to see why Taymor, with her penchant for folk tales and fascination with the cycles of life, would be attracted to the epic tale of an ordinary boy who must cross the thresholds of death and rebirth to claim the mantle of hero. “Spider-Man is a genuine American myth with a dark, primal power,” Taymor says. “But it’s also got this great superhero, and—hey!—he can fly through the theater at 40 miles an hour. It’s got villains, it’s got skyscrapers, it’s colorful, it’s Manhattan. I knew it would be a challenge, but I saw the inherent theatricality in it, and I couldn’t resist.”

Taymor and her cowriter, Glen Berger, have taken the basic contours of the familiar story and added elements of their own, including a geek chorus that comments on the action and a new supervillain drawn from Greek mythology. And Taymor will be using all the weapons in her theatrical arsenal, from the low-tech (shadow puppets depict the death of Peter’s uncle Ben) to the high- (giant LED screens project mutant ne’er-do-wells wreaking havoc on world capitals). “To me, where theater has it all over film is that it’s in the moment, it’s tactile, you feel it,” she says. “You’re completely immersed in it—right here and right now.”

To help create that immersive experience, Taymor turned to her frequent collaborator the brilliant Russian designer George Tsypin, who has a gift for haunting dreamscapes. He removed the orchestra pit and the proscenium, bringing the audience and the action together. (When Spider-Man makes his first entrance, he swings from the back of the set to the foot of the stage, landing mere inches from the innocent bystanders in the first row.) In one sequence, the fisticuffs between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin atop the Chrysler Building lead to Spidey’s jumping off the ledge—and suddenly the scenery shifts to a forced perspective that makes us feel as if we are staring down the side of a skyscraper into the street. Next thing we know, Spider-Man and the Goblin are whizzing through the air over our heads, locked in mortal combat, landing on a platform attached to the first balcony. “The people in the cheap seats are going to get quite a show,” says Taymor. If everything works, the audience should feel the vertiginous thrill of having landed in the pages of an expressionist comic book sprung to life. With a cast of 41 and no fewer than 37 scene changes, Taymor is clearly working hard to keep all the balls in the air. “I know it’s too much, but is that bad?” she asks. “Seriously, if you don’t want to do something ambitious that’s never been seen before, why do you bother?”

Taymor designed most of the masks herself, but for costumes, she turned to Eiko Ishioka, a 1988 Tony nominee for M. Butterfly, who is known for her bold, graphic style and eye for the hallucinatory. “Julie wanted me to add elements of crazy fantasy to create a world that was dangerous, risky,” Ishioka says. “Something that makes audiences go, ‘Wow!’ ” Her eye-popping evildoers—the spiny Green Goblin, the Tin Man–meets–Lizzie Borden Swiss Miss, the blood-red Carnage—recall her luxuriantly nightmarish creations for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As for Spidey’s signature skintight suit, Ishioka’s version evokes the aerodynamic uniforms she designed for the 2002 Canadian Olympic speed skaters. With a revamped spider symbol, mottled arachnid markings, and muscle-emphasizing, comic book–style shadings, the costume is part of an overall strategy, Ishioka says, to “bring the 2-D world into 3-D.”

Now donning the Green Goblin’s wings—the originally announced Mary Jane Watson and Green Goblin, Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming, bowed out last spring when the show’s producer ran out of money—is Patrick Page, an excellent actor with a knack for playing chartreuse-skinned villains, most recently in Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Page relishes portraying bad guys, he says, “especially when they’re not only insane but genetically modified.” As Peter’s girlfriend, Mary Jane, Jennifer Damiano brings the girl-next-door sex appeal, emotional vulnerability, and powerhouse singing voice that earned her a Tony nomination last year for her performance in Next to Normal. At nineteen, Damiano is well on her way to achieving what for her character, an aspiring actress straight out of high school, remains only a fantasy. “The other day, Julie and Glen were talking about changing Mary Jane’s dream of winning a Tony to winning an Oscar because that’s what kids these days dream about,” she says. “And I was like, ‘Well, not all kids. . . .’ ”

Various names were bandied about for the title role, including Taymor’s Across the Universe star Jim Sturgess, but the director wound up going with a little-known rock-’n’-roller named Reeve Carney after she saw him perform with his band. “He looks like a prince,” says Taymor, who cast him as just that in The Tempest, “but he’s gawky and skinny, like an indie artist.” Carney, whose stunts are performed by a team of Spideys, says he strongly identifies with the role: “I’m a gentle, thoughtful person offstage—at least I try to be. But onstage, I turn into a bit of an animal. I guess that’s the Spider-Man in me. I feel more invincible onstage than anywhere else, though if you think about it you’re really more vulnerable up there.”

That duality is something that U2’s Bono and the Edge understand. “Most kids who end up in bands are not necessarily the cool jocks,” says the Edge, who points out that Peter’s central dilemma—how to be a superhero without destroying his personal life—would resonate with most rock stars. These particular rock stars, whose full-throttle songs (“With or Without You” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” for instance) pulse with unabashed yearning, are the first to write a score directly for Broadway (Elton John doesn’t count). They were motivated in part because, despite their band’s astronomical success—22 Grammys, 155 million records sold—as artists, they still haven’t found what they’re looking for. “When we started out, we’d do shows where we were really shite or really great, but we had no control over which was which,” Bono says. “With time, we’ve gotten very good, and it makes me nervous. Because the difference between very good and great is huge. Getting to great requires putting yourself out of your depth.” The score that he and the Edge have written has the intensity and lyricism of their best work, and while some of the songs will sound familiar, one can also hear the influence of pop, world music, and, “dare I even say it, show tunes,” says Bono, adding, “It’s a rock score, but in the way that Sgt. Pepper is a rock album.”

It remains to be seen which of Bono and the Edge’s two power ballads from the show will serve as the headline for the reviews: "Rise bove" or "Boy falls from the sky." My Spidey sense tells me that Taymor and Co. might just pull it off. After all, from his debut in Marvel’s Amazing Fantasy #15 to his ongoing cinematic exploits (a big-screen “reboot” was recently announced, starring Andrew Garfield), Spider-Man occupies a special place in the pop-culture pantheon, partly because whether you’re a genius director, a Broadway neophyte, a pair of Irish rock stars, or a kid reading comic books under the covers by flashlight, he’s the kind of hero to whom we can all relate. As his creator, Stan Lee, tells me, “It doesn’t matter what your color or national origin—once the mask goes on, it could be you inside that Spider-Man costume.”


Tickets For Sale November 18, 2010 at 5:24 PM  

The people in the cheap seats are going to get quite a show,” says Taymor. If everything works, the audience should feel the vertiginous thrill of having landed in the pages of an expressionist comic book sprung to life.