Kicking Back With Jersey Joe: Spider-Man’s 30-Foot Plunge Off Broadway Jan07

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Kicking Back With Jersey Joe: Spider-Man’s 30-Foot Plunge Off Broadway

It sounded like a great idea when we bought our tickets to the ill-fated December 20, 2010 performance of Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark.  It was going well, until with only a few minutes left, actor Christopher Tierney plunged 30 feet into a pit in the center of the stage while fellow FaN blogger Ryan Dixon and I looked on in shock.

I had been anticipating seeing Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway for months.  This past summer, I had walked past the Foxwoods Theatre numerous times and kept seeing the signs and wondering when it would finally open. The large amount of bad press the show had earned made me doubt whether I would ever get to see it at all.  Each time I past the theatre, I was waiting for the signs to come down and a “for rent” sign to appear.

Finally, a preview date was announced and I became even more excited.  Ryan and I usually see at least one show together every time he comes to NYC.  About a month before, we were talking about what shows to see during his annual December trip and knowing me, he suggested Spider-Man, plus it was going to be my Christmas gift!

“Perfect!” I told him as we chatted via cell phone on a freezing street corner.  Tickets were already selling fast for the previews, so I suggested Lombardi with Dan Lauria and Judith Light as our backup in case we couldn’t get tickets.  But, with a few clicks of the mouse online, he had not only found us two seats, but also at a discount!  We were set!

We arrived at the theatre with about a half an hour to spare.  There was a steady stream of people flowing through the front door.  Immediately I noticed there were three gift shops all selling pricy t-shirts and tchotchkes, no doubt to defray the cost of this $65 million dollar production.  I saw a t-shirt priced at $40 and a hoodie for $65.  Ouch!

After a quick gaze at the merchandise we strolled up the spiral staircase to the balcony.  As with most Broadway theatres, there is a small bar and this one is offering multi-colored novelty drinks for this show and you are allowed to take them in.  Again, get ready to pay.  Two drinks and a bottle of water cost us $31.  Ouch, again!

I’m so glad that Ryan chose our “flying circle” seats.  These are probably the best place to be for this show.  A good bit of the action is in the air and above the floor audience.  There is an upper balcony, but the middle is where you want to be.

The show begins.  I am immediately mesmerized by the set.  It’s literally a comic book come to life.  There are high tech skyscrapers, walkways, and state of the art video animations that really give this show a look unlike anything else.  They had said from the beginning that’s what they were going for and the set deserves an award all for itself.

Our show was technically supposed to be the final preview night.  The production was set to have it’s Broadway opening the following night, but that date has been pushed until February 7, 2011 and I think that’s a good idea.

I won’t give away too much and this is not a technical review, since the show is still in previews and will change before the official opening.  But, I will reveal some of what I thought worked and what didn’t.

The first act is right out of the comic book.  It begins with a quick scene of Mary Jane dangling off the Brooklyn Bridge as Spider-Man desperately jumps to try and save her.  (Ironically, when this scene happens again in the show is where we witness the horrible accident.)

We are then introduced to four geeky teens, a “geek chorus” who guide us through the story.

We then switch to a high school classroom, with Peter learning of the tale of Arachne, the first human to ever demonstrate spider like characteristics.  (This is new to the Spider-Man lore, but the rest is right out of the comic book.)  We then learn how Peter is bitten by a spider and transformed from a bullied, unhappy kid into the super hero.

Right off the top, the music is incredible.  A small band is located stage left, while other performers are in their own pit.  The music is all original rock and you can feel the influence of U2’s Bono and The Edge.  At times, you can hear some U2 songs playing in the background, with the most noticeable being “Vertigo” during a dance club scene in act two.

As Peter wakes up in his bedroom where he first discovers his powers, the audience is treated to a great song, “Bouncing Off the Walls” as he literally does that.  The set is a little weak in the beginning of this scene, but it ends up working by the end.  As he bounces off each bedroom wall, the set separates apart quite a bit, revealing the stage hand with guide wires behind.  The wall pieces are suspended from the stage on cables and will hopefully be tightened up for the official show.

Later, Peter learns more about his new powers and with scenes interwoven with Arachne, he becomes Spider-Man. And that’s where the high flying stunts really begin!  He flies from building to building up, over, and around the stage; eventually taking to the air over the audience!

As the act continues, a stage hand walks down the aisle next to our seats and begins to connect some type of trapeze apparatus.  Later in the scene, while Peter is on stage, a stunt double dressed as Spidey crawls on his hands and knees down the aisle and is swiftly connected.  After Peter leaves the stage, the next scene goes on with Spidey taking an aerial dive off our balcony for a battle with the Green Goblin!

In all honestly, with the two prior accidents and the bad press, it was definitely in the back of your mind that something could go wrong during the performance.  During the scene, Spider-Man quickly dips down below our level and the audience in our area definitely gasped, only to be amazed two seconds later when he popped back up.  I noticed one or two people jumping out of their seats right there and then.

The battle scene goes on with many breathtaking dips, leaps, and hits with Spidey eventually returning to the stage for the rest of the scene.

We are also introduced to several new villains known as the “Sinister Six” who team up and go on a major crime spree.

We hit the intermission and it was definitely longer than the standard 15 minutes.  It had to be more like 25, but I didn’t have a stop watch running.  During the break, the audience was talking amongst themselves about how amazing the show was and how they were awed by all the aerial maneuvers.

Act Two finally began and this is where the show needs work.  In this act, Peter no longer wants to be Spider-Man, instead falls in love and wants to marry Mary Jane.  We are treated to several love ballads that are WAY too long and need to be totally cut.  During this time, the criminals run out of control.  Peter, who was reluctant to return to his crime fighting super-hero life, has a change of heart after Arachne captures Mary Jane and she is left dangling off the Brooklyn Bridge.

So, what happens next in the story?  I wouldn’t know.  We never made it to the end.  The bridge scene went on with Mary Jane falling from underneath.  As Spidey reaches over to grab her, the actor, Christopher Tierney, plunged 30 feet off the edge and down through the pit in the front of the stage.  You could then see a long silver cable with a silver box attached behind it plunge with him.  The scene ends and the lights go black.

About 2 seconds later you could hear a female (now known as actress Jennifer Damaino, who plays Mary Jane) screaming “somebody call 9-1-1!” and you instantly knew there was trouble.

A hush fell over the audience as a male voice came over the loudspeaker… “We’re in stop down.  There will be a brief pause in our performance.”

Everyone looked on to the stage as the “geek chorus” who had been sitting on the side, exited stage right and several stage hands could be seen scurrying around.  A group of work lights came on underneath the bridge set to illuminate the pit, but you couldn’t see what was down there.

After maybe 30 seconds, the house lights came up a bit and the front screen was lowered over the stage.

I looked over at Ryan and commented…  “Wow that’s not good.  And the feeling is absolutely uncomfortable in here.”

He replied: “That’s one thing you never want to hear during a Broadway play, somebody screaming to dial 9-1-1.”

For the next two minutes or so, the audience sat very quiet.  Everyone knew he was hurt and the stunt had gone totally wrong, but nobody knew how bad it was.  The air had a very heavy feeling as people looked for any signs from the stage.

Then, another announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are unable to continue, the rest of this evening’s performance is cancelled.”  The house lights went up full.  Everyone looked around, but a second or two later they were grabbing their coats and heading for the exit.

As soon as we were out the door from our seats, just about everyone was on their cell phones texting what happened, not calling – texting.  At least 80% of the people were on their phones.  After a brief stop at the men’s room, we went down the spiral stairs with the rest of the crowd.  Not many words were being said, everyone definitely seemed to be in shock over what happened.  But, that shock didn’t stop them from texting.  People were typing as fast as they could and not really paying attention to where they were walking.

We finally hit the main exit, just as a NYPD car was pulling up at the scene.  After looking on for a few minutes, three officers stood in front for crowd control.  By this point, people actually began speaking with most of them saying over and over how that stunt went wrong.  I felt bad for some of the young kids, who weren’t crying, but had to be confused about what they witnessed.

We did a quick circle around the block to the stage’s back door where a small crowd was waiting for the cast to exit.  Again, two more cop cars and a few officers were standing watch.  The ambulance was long gone, but some people were waiting for any news.  We watched a WABC-TV reporter do eyewitness interviews.  The cast and crew that did exit said very little and quickly hurried off into cabs or their waiting car service.

The shock to me kind of gave me an upset stomach, but Ryan always has to eat and we went in search for a restaurant to sit down.  Once inside, we were both on our smart phones watching the updates from the New York Times and the local television stations’ websites.

Both of us were still quite shocked at what we had witnessed.  We have worked in the entertainment business for years and had acted in and watched so many stage plays since high school, but we’d never witnessed an accident on stage like this.

At Belleview Hospital, Tierney was being treated for four broken ribs, 3 broken vertebrae, and a concussion.  Recently, he described to WCBS-TV what had happened:

“I’m supposed to jump off the bridge and I’m tethered to my back, but it wasn’t tethered to the stage.”  He also stated that as he fell, “I had to just turn so I didn’t fall on my head.”

One thing is for sure, this show is unlike anything ever in Broadway history.  The sets are super high-tech and the flying is amazing.  The harnesses that the cast wears to do the maneuvers were based on designs for the aerial TV cameras used during NFL games, according to a 60 Minutes report.

The show’s first preview performance (which ended up being the show’s first full run-through) was marred with major technical glitches causing the show to stop down many times.  It is easy to see how things can go wrong in a production as advanced as this.  It’s new technology, being put to the test in an old and tiny theatre, so there are bound to be bugs that have to be worked out.  I can see why the show has been delayed over and over.  It’s almost too big and still needs work.  We need to give them time to get this one right.  Not just from the cost perspective, but for cast, crew, and audience safety as well.  We don’t need any more visits from OSHA or the FDNY and we certainly don’t need any more injuries!

After a dark night and a day of cancelled performances, the show went back on the stage December 23rd.  During that time, new safety measures were put into effect including, two stagehands now assisting in helping the actors into their harnesses.  I can tell you that we only saw one guy rigging up Spidey in our balcony at that ill-fated performance.

Actress Natalie Mendoza who played Aracnhe has also stepped down from the production.  She received a concussion when she was hit by some ropes controlling the set during the first preview performance.  She had been absent from the show since Tierney’s accident, stating that she needed to recuperate from her concussion and she has been replaced.

As for the script, the second act needs a great deal of work.  The love songs and scenes are way too long, boring, and bring all the action to a screeching halt.  It does give you a break from all the bells and whistles, but it was kind of putting me to sleep.  The show runs over three hours and needs to be cut down.  Also, the dream sequences in the second act with Arachne are confusing to understand.  The show has to rely on the chorus to move the story along.  Some of the songs seemed forced and only interrupted the story, instead of adding some backbone to it.  The first act is there and is spot on. The second act needs changes, which I have read are being addressed during this next month of extended previews.

A couple of the scene changes are also a bit long and you can see stagehands present pulling cables in the middle of some of scenes.  A little lighting change, or a well placed prop, might be able to disguise that.

Lastly, they need to cut some dialogue and some of the song verses.  The music is great, but some of the musical numbers seem to go on and on.  It’s like editing a movie, a few trims and a few re-writes here and there, while working out the actor’s choreography will make for a truly great show.

Director Julie Taymor recently confirmed in last week’s Time magazine that the plot is a bit more complex than the audiences can grasp and they are also underwhelmed by the climactic finale.  She is currently working on rewrites especially focusing on the second act and is also adding a new web special effect for the final scene.

“This is a musical that’s got surrealism and poetic concepts woven into a drama,” she told the magazine.  “So it is a tall order.”

But, once the buzz dies down and it becomes a well oiled machine, will audiences keep coming back?  I don’t think so for the long haul.  This will probably have a good two or three year run, but I don’t see it becoming the next Cats and making all its money back.  Plus if there’s just one more accident, someone is going to take action.  After all, we all know how insurance companies can be!

Spider-Man creator Stan Lee told after viewing a recent preview performance that the show is “indescribable” and “fantastic.”

As for Tierney, he was released from rehab on Wednesday.  He told Good Morning America he can’t wait to return to the show and told WCBS that he still trusts the stage crew with his life.  “It’s completely forgiven and forgotten.  I’m glad to be working on the show.”

THE 411

What: Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark

Where: Foxwoods Theatre, New York City

Length: the preview shows run over 3 hours

Opening Date: February 7, 2011 (that date has been pushed many times over the last year, originally was to open February 2010).

JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS: I would say see this show a few months after it finally opens.  It will give them time to do the planned script rewrites and to continue practicing the stunts.  It really is something to see and I look forward to going back.  Plus, I want to know how it ends!  If the plot doesn’t work itself out, the sets and action alone are worth a ticket.

It’s a good one to take the kids or the family to,  but, watch out… it is expensive!  Low end tickets could start around $100 and all the gift shops inside are top dollar!  Steer the kids away from those and into their seats.

If comic books and super heroes aren’t your thing and you still want to see some of these stunts, I would also recommend checking out playing at The MGM Grand in Las Vegas, instead.  I have never seen it, but I understand they do many of the same aerial stunts but for an adult audience and with an even bigger budget.

I sincerely do hope that Spider-Man has a long run on Broadway.  Not just so they can get back their millions in production costs, but also so all the sweat, tears, and now blood is not in vain.