Every week, there's another bit of bad news about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Listing one heartbreak after another has practically become an official sport for schadenfreude-happy bloggers: the continually pushed-back opening dates; the script revisions (including last week's addition of a stunt-happy climax to replace the allegedly ponderous, confusing ending); the injured stuntmen; cast members resigning for fear of injury to their bodies or their reputations; horrible reviews; Glenn Beck raving that it is "history of Broadway being made" and urging his teabaggy listeners to sell a kidney to see the show if they have to.
There have been other superhero-musical meltdowns—clips of an ill-advised Superman musical haunt YouTube, and a Captain America musical was advertised but collapsed before it opened—but Spider-Man has raised the stakes to Wagnerian proportions. Broadway royalty Julie Taymor has reportedly pumped a record-breaking $65 million of investor money (at least) into her show, and Bono and the Edge's (allegedly lackluster) soundtrack marks their debut as musical-auteur wannabes. The play is a parade balloon of pomposity, inflated on ego and practically begging for the darts of amateur critics everywhere.
By contrast, John Osebold's Spidermann went from conception to reality in less than a month (its three-day run concluded last Saturday). It ran just under an hour and was performed radio-play style, with actors reading from scripts on music stands. The whole thing probably cost a couple hundred bucks, and it was performed in the tiny Satori Lofts at 619 Western in Pioneer Square to audiences that paid five bucks a pop for the quick-and-dirty thrill of seeing a bootleg musical production. Spidermann wasn't a Mad magazine–style parody of Spider-Man; nobody wore tights or performed any stunts (a folded ladder that lay at the edge of the makeshift stage ultimately went unused, a passive suggestion of the kind of Jackass-level insanity one immediately imagines a Spider-Man knockoff would attempt). Instead, bursts of dialogue were punctuated with video of spiderwebs, old cartoons, and stock footage.
The "story" hits the basic plot points: Peter Parkre (Ray Tagavilla) is handed a drink by Radioactive Steve Winwood (Mark Siano) and so develops another personality, Spidermann (Osebold). He falls for a hot redhead named Mary Jane Taymor (Erin Jorgensen on Saturday, though the role was played by a different actress every night) and interacts with his Uncle Ben (played by Evan Mosher, holding a box of Uncle Ben's instant rice), Aunt Jemima (Mosher again, holding a bottle of maple syrup), and a villain named Spidermensch (Mosher, refreshingly prop-free). After getting the contextual jokes out of the way (Uncle Ben has a compulsive need to say "With great power comes great responsibility" all the time, including in the bathroom), the center of the play is a series of dream sequences, toying with the characters' relationships. An assholish Spidermann has a coke-fueled sex party with Mary Jane; Spidermann and Parkre are gay lovers, about to host Parkre's homophobic Uncle Ben for the first time; Parkre is a mad scientist who clones Mary Jane when his powers drain the life out of her.
Surprisingly, Osebold, who claims to have "a surface understanding of Spider-Man" garnered from seeing "at least the first two movies," nails the core of the character immediately. As Spidermann, the first thing he sings, the first lyric of the show, is "Something is wrong with me," in a mournful tone. It becomes his refrain, and it nails the heart of Spider-Man's appeal with teens and young adults, the feeling that there's something uniquely freakish in the center of your being. (You can't make a comic book about a nerdy teenaged boy who can shoot sticky fluid from his palms without tapping into the alienation of burgeoning sexuality.) Running jokes about Spider-Man's misfortunes ran hot and heavy (repeated cymbal-crashing suggested pieces of the set falling onto characters, ostentatious musical flourishes collapsed into meager farts). The rat-a-tat delivery of multitiered jokes was overwhelmingly successful; only one sequence of snarks about desperate grabs for armloads of Tony Awards came across as slightly bratty.
The most charming aspect of Osebold's Spidermann is its embrace of spectacle, its Taymorian appreciation of the popular. Siano's schizophrenic a cappella medley of Steve Winwood hits was breathless in its adoration of brainless pop music, and the closing full-cast dance number to U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" at once mocked the cheesy grandiosity of pop culture and embraced it as an emotional experience. As much as Spidermann pierced the heart of Spider-Man's self-importance, it relished the dumb bombast in its own way, too.