"Spider-Man" to Return Thursday After Makeover

By Mark Kennedy
|  Thursday, May 12, 2011  |  Updated 9:31 AM EDT
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Brace yourselves, citizens. It's time for the new adventures of Spider-Man the musical.

Broadway's most expensive and audacious show is to return from a three-week hiatus on Thursday with what the creative team and producers say is a cleaner story, tighter music and more love story.

And hopefully less angst.

"I think this is going to be a very big, very exciting week for us," says Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who was recruited to rewrite the script. "I think we're ready and hungry for an audience to experience a new ride, to get on board."

Whether the reworked musical is called a comeback, a reboot, a revamp or "Spider-Man 2.0," one thing is clear: producers Jeremiah "Jere" Harris and Michael Cohl have boldly — or foolishly — rolled the dice again.

"We did it because we felt the company deserved another shot. We're taking that shot. It's either going to be great or not so great — and we will have learned a lot," says Harris.

The musical reopens without the visionary Julie Taymor as director and with rejiggered music and a smoothed out script. Reeve Carney, who plays Peter Parker, says the changes have left the cast reinvigorated.

"There's an energy in the company because of having a clear direction, knowing where we're headed and knowing that it's going to be to a greater place," says Carney, who has stuck around despite having the chance to leave the production. The new script, he says, "jumps off the page at you."

Kevin Brown, an actor, producer, director and assistant professor at the University of Missouri Department of Theatre, has been following the soap opera at the Foxwoods Theatre with a skeptical eye.

"I don't know if you can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but I guess they're going to try," he said. "There are so many cooks in the kitchen at this point, you just wonder if it can be done. I suppose theoretically it could be done. I hope it works. But I wouldn't bet on it if I had to put money on it."

The stunt-heavy show, co-written and led by Taymor and with music by U2's Bono and The Edge, began previews on Nov. 28 after years of delay but never officially opened, instead lurching from one embarrassment to another.

Performances were canceled and stunts went awry, leaving actors trapped hanging over the audience. There were five major accidents to cast members, including one to lead actress Natalie Mendoza, who left the show after suffering a concussion.

The worst accident happened to actor Christopher Tierney, who suffered a fractured skull, a fractured shoulder blade, four broken ribs and three broken vertebrae on Dec. 20 when he tumbled in front of a shocked preview audience after a safety harness failed. In April, only four months after the fall, he returned to the show and is expected to again execute the main Spider-Man aerial stunts.

The $70 million show — a midlevel budget in Hollywood but a price that is double the previous record for the most expensive Broadway production — became the butt of jokes, roasted by comics on "Saturday Night Live" and late-night chat shows.

Yet nothing seemed to hurt it at the box office, where it regularly sold out and was among the highest earners on Broadway. Every new crisis seemed to postpone another opening, leading to it breaking the record for the longest run of preview performances along the way, a dubious milestone.

In early March, after some critics got fed up with waiting and universally slammed the show, producers Harris and Cohl finally stepped in, hiring a new creative team and saying goodbye to Taymor and choreographer Daniel Ezralow, among others.

Aguirre-Sacasa, director Philip William McKinley and choreographer Chase Brock cleaned up a story that had wandered into darker and mythological themes, while Bono and The Edge reworked the songs. More flying stunts were added and the romance between Peter Parker and Mary Jane returned to center stage.

"The story is clearer, more understandable. The sound has improved tremendously. The songs have been fixed and improved and tweaked and gotten better, kind of like a fine wine," says Cohl. "The presentation of the songs and the actors and actresses is much improved. So I think overall it's a much better show."

The so-called Geek Chorus — four comic-book fans who framed the plot and represented Taymor, Bono, The Edge and co-book writer Glen Berger — have been cut. The role of a villainous spider-woman named Arachne has been scaled back and the Green Goblin's role has been enhanced.

Aguirre-Sacasa, a playwright, screenwriter and writer of Spider-Man comic books, had the unenviable job of marrying Taymor's stage craft and visual spectacle "with a much sturdier, emotional framework." The result strikes "a balance between all the elements and giving a really rich satisfying evening of theater."

As for Taymor's legacy, Carney says there's a good reason why she's still billed as a director even if it appears she's been thrown under a bus. "I think all of her imagination is so clearly still the driving force of the show," he says.

Now the question is: Will the audience wish the whole thing had stayed in the dark? Producers will be watching the folks in the seats carefully over the next few weeks. "The greatest barometer is, 'What's the audience's reaction?'" Harris says.

The new show expects to have about a month of previews before its June 14 opening. Since it missed this year's Tony Award deadline and potential prizes, it could have a tumultuous summer if the economy fails to improve, tourists flock to other shows and New Yorkers sniff at lining up to see the rebooted Spidey.

But there was a sign Wednesday that things are at least somewhat back on track: Critics were sent a save-the-date message for performances in anticipation of opening night. Producers have so far set six opening dates, but this was the first time critics had gotten such an optimistic message.

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