As Spidey lifts off, a view from the seats

Crowds at the first performance of Julie Taymor’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’’ on Broadway. Crowds at the first performance of Julie Taymor’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’’ on Broadway. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / December 12, 2010

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NEW YORK — A sense of fun and occasion — as well as a frisson of danger — pervaded the Foxwoods Theatre on 42d Street last Sunday afternoon as the audience filed in out of the cold, past souvenir stands stocked with Spider-Man gear and a sign notifying them that this performance of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’’ would be filmed. Children so small they needed booster cushions for their seats came dressed in Spidey suits complete with foam pecs and abs.

A young woman described to her boyfriend the “Saturday Night Live’’ bit lampooning the show’s troubles, which had aired the night before and done nothing to dull her excitement. A middle-aged man, taking his seat beneath the mezzanine overhang, said, “If anybody falls, at least you’re not hit.’’ He was talking, of course, about the performers who fly out over the audience’s heads.

A few minutes after 3 p.m., producer Jeremiah J. Harris walked onto the stage.

“A little delay,’’ a sixtyish woman in an orchestra seat predicted before he could speak, but she was mistaken.

Harris welcomed the audience to the show’s sixth preview — a specificity that would be odd under other circumstances but here was intended to signal that these were early days in the run.

“We’re getting quite a bit of notoriety, good and bad,’’ he acknowledged, going on to deliver what he called good news: The New York State Department of Labor had approved all of the aerial stunts, so the audience would see the show in its entirety. Then he introduced C. Randall White, the production stage manager, who would stop the performance if it ran into trouble.

The lights went down right on time, and White’s voice came over the speakers only twice to pause the proceedings, for a combined total of perhaps three minutes: once when the villainous Green Goblin couldn’t complete a descent, again when a few extra moments were needed before Arachne, a spider-woman character borrowed from Greek mythology, could swoop in over the crowd. Two other times, harnessed performers had to be unstuck with the help of stagehands, who were nimble enough to release them without slowing the action.

Snags aside, the flying sent a palpable thrill through the house. “Wow,’’ breathed a man sitting next to his 6-year-old, watching Spidey soar over the spectators. He said it again moments later, when the superhero nabbed a bad guy and pulled him into the air.

So those technical problems that have been bringing director Julie Taymor so much public grief? She’s making progress on them.