NEW YORK - I have seen the immediate future of Broadway, and it is stranded on a ledge of the first balcony.
It stands high up there, decked out in a form-fitting Spider-Man suit, in the person of good-looking, strong-voiced Reeve Carney, hands at his side, face with just a hint of oh-no-not-again chagrin, his presence all the more marooned in a harsh white light that had been illuminating his final speedy swoops above the main-floor audience at the Foxwoods Theatre on 42d Street.
Could this be it? After a first act that builds up nicely with over-the-top (literally) special effects and a second act that starts out gratuitous and settles into being long, convoluted, and tiring, could this be the curtain call? After all, the superhero has just offed everyone who is off-able. The orchestra continues to play. The cast stands onstage, aimless.
In the end, the superhero himself has been stilled - by real life. Carney cannot move. His ropes are locked.
A clueless audience is a rotten idea, so after a few seconds that seem much longer, someone turns off the spotlight, kills the orchestration. "One second, folks," says the disembodied voice of a nameless male. "We are having just a little technical problem."
I'll bet I'm not the only one in the house struck by the cynical passing thought that the producers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark are inserting a faux glitch to accommodate the audience, for after the announcement, a strange thing happens: A little applause breaks out, then grows - not thunderously - then dies. What was being applauded? The technical malfunction? The relief (I hope it was relief) that no one was hurt? The fact that we had witnessed the sort of glitch that's turned a Broadway musical into a circus?
A stagehand rushes to unhook Spider-Man from his errant ropes, and he disappears into the balcony. "And folks," says the voice, "this is exactly what would have happened next." Cue the curtain call. Whatever we were by now applauding, the gods of theater had given us bragging rights, extra value for full-price tickets that bought us entry to nothing more than a preview. For any other show, my $151, including tax and handling fees, would have been perhaps a third less before the official opening night.
But then, Spider-Man, at $65 million the most expensive Broadway show ever, has charged regular post-opening prices while never officially opening, stuck in previews that its producers keep extending while high-tech (and also basic theatrical) problems keep plaguing the production, in which several performers have been injured. The show, under the creative supervision of Broadway super-talent Julie Taymor (The Lion King), has acquired a crash-landing reputation: It's the target of late-night TV monologue patter, other one-liners from the famous, tweets from anybody, and casual everyday-conversation jokes.
A bunch of critics decided to cut to the chase last week, when Spider-Man arrived at its third dashed opening date; opening night is now set for March 15.
I was not part of the rush to judgment. I'd planned to wait until Taymor said the show was actually ready for prime time, the normal social convention between critics and productions. But once the opening-night embargo was broken, the floodgates were open - after all, about 130,000 people have seen Spider-Man in what will be the most-previewed show in Broadway history, and they're also not holding back comment.
I went Wednesday, having read no reviews until I wrote my own - another social convention of criticism. What I saw was a Spider-Man with some thrilling, dangerous choreography, in flight and onstage, by Daniel Ezralow, many characters in intricately designed Taymor masks, fabulous cartoonish scenery by George Tsypin, projections by Kyle Cooper, and costumes by Eiko Ishioka.
Its music, by Bono and The Edge, started off well, then became pummelingly repetitive, like the show itself; by the time people burst into song about love and hope and all that in the last 45 minutes, I didn't care whether the world was destroyed or not. I just wanted them to shut up and get on with it, either way.
I wasn't looking for great musical theater from Spider-Man. I wanted a live comic book. I'm not saying you should lower your standards at a show like this one, just that the standards are different. And that is why Spider-Man, in its current preview state, fails. Theatrically, when the ropes all work, it grabs you. As a live comic book, it does not.
In a comic book, things happen quickly from panel to panel, the motives are clear throughout, and we are saving the world along with whoever saves it on the page. This never happens onstage in Spider-Man, which is like a beautifully drawn comic without much thought as to what's in the balloons above everyone's heads. The show's book, by Taymor and Glen Berger, has too much plot, too much padding, and almost no wit. Its laugh lines almost all fall flat - and start out that way. Its draggy framework - four actors playing teens (among them, Philadelphia's Gideon Glick) trying to create a Spider-Man story - pulls everything down, forget the flying.
Still, I'm not giving up on Spider-Man, which has about a month until it opens, or is supposed to open. That's a lot of time for alterations. The problem is clear. In translating a comic book to the stage, Spider-Man nails the illustration. In giving us a comic-book story we root for, Spider-Man is, for now, stuck. And not just on the ledge of the first balcony.