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A tangled web

Is it possible that Broadway’s ‘Spider-Man’ can be both shockingly disastrous and a whopping blockbuster?

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / April 1, 2011

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NEW YORK: Here are some facts about the disastrously successful musical, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.’’

Fact: The show has had more than 120 performances, but the producers insist it hasn’t “opened’’ yet. Opening night, now called “hopening night,’’ is scheduled for June 14.

Fact: It may be one of the worst-reviewed shows in Broadway history. The generally temperate Ben Brantley of The New York Times said as much in a February review, after he and his editors got tired of waiting around for the show to formally open. “[‘Spider-Man’] is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway,’’ he wrote, “it may also rank among the worst.’’ The accident-plagued production has cost an estimated $65 million to $75 million.

“How long before I’m out of here?’’ was Brantley’s parting plaint.

Fact: It’s devilishly hard to get a ticket. I couldn’t get my first choice. The Broadway League reports that Spidey is playing to 95 percent full houses, at an average ticket price of $103.45.

Fact: Glenn Beck liked it, but he’s a little wacky.

Fact: It’s every bit as bad as the critics reported. The plot is ghastly, and “unfaithful’’ to the Spider-Man canon. The music is by-the-numbers-Rock 101 remnants assembled from the cutting floor at the U2 factory. It’s super-loud and incomprehensible, just like the American Repertory Theater’s ongoing noisefest, “Prometheus Bound.’’ U2’s Bono (prosaic real name = Paul David Hewson) and the Edge (prosaic real name = David Howell Evans) share the musical credit for “Spider-Man.’’ Julie Taymor of “Lion King’’ fame co-wrote and directed the show, although she has since been shunted aside.

To be fair, one or two of the quieter ballads worked well, and the sets show occasional flashes of beauty and imagination. Lead actor Reeve Carney made me want to haul off and watch Taymor’s movie “The Tempest,’’ where he plays Prince Ferdinand. Alas, it is not in theaters anymore.

Fact: The day I went — a Sunday matinee — the completely full house gave the performers a standing ovation.

Fact: Despite the show’s paradoxical commercial success, the producers have brought in a new creative team. To do what exactly? Spokesman Rick Miramontez says Bono and the Edge will be working up some new songs. According to an official statement, “The team will be implementing a new plan to make significant and exciting revisions to the production.’’ The show will go dark for three weeks starting April 19 to gin up the new material.

Discuss.

How to explain the sticky allure of a show that has been mocked not once but twice on “Saturday Night Live’’? Don’t discount the NASCAR factor: There is a reasonable possibility of seeing a crash.

There have been five reported injuries from the show’s aerotechnical wizardry, one of them quite serious. At the show I attended, the audience was informed that an understudy would be playing the role of Arachne, a ridiculous spider-goddess/fifth wheel grafted onto the Spider-Man story. A few days later we learned that the lead actress, T.V. Carpio, had been injured a few days before. Ironically, Carpio landed the part of Arachne only after the original actress in the role, Natalie Mendoza, suffered a concussion.

Here’s my question: If people are paying good money to see Bad “Spider-Man,’’ why spend huge sums of money to create Slightly Better “Spider-Man’’? “The trick with this show is to take advantage of other income streams,’’ explains Steven Chaikelson, a theater producer who is also director of Columbia’s MFA program in theater management. Because it is so huge and technically complex, “Spider-Man’’ would require semi-permanent engagements in large cities, or the kind of installation Cirque de Soleil has perfected in Las Vegas. “They have a Spider-Man ride at Universal Studios in Orlando,’’ Chaikelson says. “That would be a logical place to install it.’’

Overall, he is fairly sanguine about the play’s prospects. “ ‘Wicked’ got pretty mixed reviews, as did ‘Les Miserables’ in London,’’ Chaikelson comments. “If they can take this enormous publicity machine, and keep the effects that have people’s mouths hanging open, then they may actually have something. It doesn’t have to be brilliant theater.’’

I recall one of those cryptic Bob Dylan lines that stays with you for a lifetime, even though you aren’t exactly sure what it means: There is no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.