Monday 11 December 2017

More a comedy of errors than superhero action

It's a marvel that Bono's rock musical even made it on to the stage, writes Donal Lynch

And yet, in this era of tweets, texts and blogs, it was unrealistic to expect that the media would hold their fire until January, when the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark musical officially opens. Beset by endless delays, rocketing production costs and portentous industry rumours, the show flapped into town like a pardoned Thanksgiving turkey last week. And, even allowing for the fact that this was its rough form, it was hard for critics to say anything kind.

It was taken to be a bad sign when the first preview performance was abruptly cancelled last weekend. By the time the doors finally opened at the Foxwoods Theater just off Time Square, there were rumours that Bono and the Edge would make a cavalry-style appearance to drum up good vibes and press the flesh of fans who had paid up to $275 (€208) for tickets. They had appeared in a CBS special in the previous days, which had given some people the erroneous impression that they were in town. In the end, they watched on the internet from Australia, where they are on tour.

It might have equally been said that Bono not sitting in the front row was a pure Health and Safety decision. The show began nearly 30 minutes late, and at various points in the first act overhead wires landed on audience members, scenery sailed into view with bits missing, and Natalie Mendoza -- one of the lead actresses -- was left dangling in mid-air for what seemed like an age while someone on the PA urged us to give her a cringeworthy round of applause.

In another scene Peter Parker -- Spider-Man's alter ego -- was supposed to rescue his love interest, Mary Jane, from the top of the Chrysler building. But when we looked across the stage, half of the building was missing (they might get away with this anywhere but New York) and the actress playing Mary Jane was nowhere in sight. As audience members glanced around them, Spidey suddenly flew in with Mary Jane in his arms and deposited her on the stage. He was then supposed to dash off in a dramatic superhero-style exit. Instead he ended up stuck, swinging in mid-air as stage hands below him tried in vain to grab his ankles.

In total, the show was stopped five times for technical glitches. By the time the final stoppage came, one audience member took it upon herself to scream out, "This seems more like a dress rehearsal than the final play, it needs work!" at which point the audience began to boo her. By then everyone was feeling a sort of loyalty to the performers. The last thing they needed was someone pointing out the obvious. The intermission lasted almost an hour. Cast, crew, audience; we all needed a breather.

Of course, all of this won't deter U2 fans too much. The fact that the musical contains many new songs by Bono and the Edge should make it worth seeing. The duo have written hits for others before (including Goldeneye, sung by Tina Turner in the Bond movie), and they've even been heard in comic book adaptations (Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me for one of the Batman movies), but they're not natural writers in this format. A musical requires you to tell a story in songs and to fit the music to a specific character, something quite different to what they're used to.

Of the 19 new songs by Bono and the Edge, only three or four rise above the ordinary. Boy Falls From the Sky, which was used in several television promos, is probably the best.

When I interviewed Glen Berger, who co-wrote the book (or 'script'), a few years ago in Dublin, I thought many of his ideas about the musical seemed quite esoteric and confused. Now, seeing it live, it was clear that this is not a retelling of what most know as familiar through the movies and books. Instead, it draws on Roman mythology, with themes of mortality and power mixed in.

New York critics were unanimously nonplussed with the storyline, with Michael Riedel of the New York Post calling the script "baffling". At various points the giant screens behind the stage seemed to be used as a crutch to keep the narrative limping along.

But perhaps we should be kind. That the show made it on to the stage at all has been a minor miracle. The rights to the acquisition of the Spider-Man brand are almost as long and complicated as the history of the comic character itself.

When the 'stage rights' were bought nearly a decade ago, the producers began assembling a team which would include Bono and the Edge. Then things started to go awry. The original producer, Tony Adams, died just as the Irish stars were signing the contract to participate. Then the show was supposed to open last February, but didn't. By that time, some of the actors who had committed to star in it -- Alan Cumming for one -- had to move on to other projects. A new producer was brought in, and they pushed hard to have it ready for the lucrative Christmas season.

And, according to them, they have succeeded. The producers released a statement last week saying that the show had made over $1m in its first 24 hours.

Nevertheless, there have been reports in the New York Times that the owner of the Foxwoods Theater, Erich Jungwirth, is already in talks with producers of other shows to line up a replacement in case Spider-Man fails.

Jungwirth later issued a statement saying that this was normal business practice and that he expected Spider-Man to run "for many years to come".

It's expected that the show will have to have a substantial run to make its money back. Its production costs were over $65m -- the highest in Broadway history -- and it is believed to cost $1m a week to run.

Whether what Bono has called his "pop-up pop art opera" can overcome so much negative buzz remains to be seen. The farcical preview performances have placed a world of pressure on the cast and crew and for the first time Brand U2 could have made a career misstep.

"I don't know about you, but I felt like a guinea pig tonight," one New Yorker shouted after the performance. I'm sure poor Natalie Mendoza knew how she felt as she dangled above a few thousand bemused New Yorkers. They did manage to get her down, by the way. Eventually.

Sunday Independent

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