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'The Spidey Project' Musical Opens (and Closes) Before 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark'

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In the interest of full disclosure: I'm a lifelong Spider-Man fan, but the recent movie trilogy satisified -- and then also nullified -- my thirst for live-action webslinging adventures. I'm taking a wait-and-see approach to the upcoming 3D film "reboot" of the Spider-Man film franchise, now starring Andrew Garfield as hero Peter Parker. And I had no intention of seeing Julie Taymor and Bono's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway, expecting only to be incensed at the myriad ways the bloated blockbuster production would surely skew the Spider-Man story I knew and loved to make it all but unrecognizable to comic book geeks like myself.

Which is why I was initally both intrigued and dismissive when improv performer and playwright Justin Moran announced on February 11 that he would create and direct The Spidey Project, a "guerilla theater" musical based on the Spider-Man comic books -- to be completed in less than 30 days, with a budget of $0, and scheduled to open on March 14, one night before the $65 million Broadway musical's  delayed March 15 opening (which has now been pushed to June 14, following the dismissal of Turn Off the Dark director Julie Taymor).

"Over the last few years, we've seen more money poured into one show than any other in Broadway history," Moran said of Turn Off the Dark, "and it still shows no signs of opening. Wouldn't it have been amazing if instead of this one show, a dozen smaller new musicals open this season? Think of how crazy the Tonys would be. Think of the creative innovation as each show tried to do more with less. Think of the amount of actors that would be working again."

Moran was inspired to action by the negative reviews Spider-Man received after February 7, the show's previous (but also delayed) opening night. Yet rather than criticize someone else's work, he decided to take on the project himself. "Our goal isn’t to tear down Julie Taymor or parody her production,” Moran told the New York Times in February. "Our goal is to do what she should have done in the first place, and that’s just make a really good musical." Miraculously, the creators did something their Broadway rivals couldn't: they opened the show on time and on budget.

I was in the audience for the second of two one-night only performances of The Spidey Project: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility at The PIT last night; a 10 p.m. performance was added after tickets for the 8 p.m. show sold out instantly. My curiosity and love of all things Spidey meant that I had to see it, if only to confirm that Moran had undertaken an impossible challenge which would only vindicate Taymor as a visionary director. As I followed Moran & Co.'s progress on his "The Spidey Project" blog, I figured the stunt might make for an entertaining event on a Monday night. But I didn't actually expect the show to be so good.

Moran used the power of the internet (specifically Facebook and YouTube), though, to recruit a talented cast and crew of volunteers from the improv and musical theater communities, who together displayed their ingenuity and sincerity in bringing a one-hour Spider-Man musical comedy to the New York City stage.

They made me think that maybe Spider-Man should have been envisioned as a comedy all along.

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The cast -- including Travis Nilan as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Liz Bachman as his love interest Gwen Stacy, Ryan Nelson as high school bully Flash Thompson, Michael Lutton as Peter's Uncle Ben, Louie Pearlman as tough-talking Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, Claire Neumann as Jameson's lonely secretary Betty Brant, Robin Rothman as Aunt May, and Jon Roufaeal (who also co-wrote the book & lyrics with Moran) as news anchor Kent Holbrook -- and crew had less than a month to stage an original musical. The script was completed on Feb. 21, 10 days after the project was announced, and the rehearsal process immediately began in earnest as the creators also asked for donations of props and costumes.

The entire nine-person cast is hysterically funny (and that's a good thing, since The Spidey Project is, above all, a comedy), but Neumann and Pearlman are particular standouts for wringing laughs out of every lyric and line of dialogue. As Uncle Ben, Lutton is particularly funny when he sings about being a "hero" because he is so good at paying bills -- and later panics when he thinks that the "changes in my body" that Peter wants to talk about as a result of being bitten by a radioactive spider means they have to have "the talk." The cast members also fill in as a comedic version of the "Geek Chorus" featured in Turn Off the Dark, populating the high school hallways and city streets of Spider-Man's world.

As Spider-Man, Nilan is athletic and exuberant enough to bounce from wall to wall and dodge punches in slow motion. Since Moran -- who also appears on stage as Dr. Spiderman (pronounced "SPEED-er-men") -- and crew spent about $65 million less than their Broadway counterparts, Spider-Man remains grounded throughout the show, instead of flying over the audience on complex wire and harness systems. But I have to admit that there were moments in David Rossetti's choreography and Dylan Giannunzio's fight choreography when I forgot that Nilan wasn't actually swinging over our heads or jumping between skyscrapers. (To evoke the New York City skyline that serves as the webslinger's playground, two cast members stood still and held carboard cutouts shaped like buildings.)

Various cast members also double as comic book villains Electro, Lizard, Rhino, and Chameleon, whose costumes consist of simple yet instantly recognizable logos on screen-printed T-shirts. The "set," as it were, is a series of comic-style paintings against a white backdrop, which are rapidly hung and then replaced to change the setting for each scene. Arguably the most ingenious low-budget moment comes when Spider-Man's famous "spider sense," which warns him of danger, is represented with offstage voices murmuring "tingle, tingle, tingle." The audience reaction was a collective lightbulb of recognition followed by huge laughs.

Tn-500_s5 "Having no budget was actually freeing in a lot of ways," Moran said prior to the performances, "because we knew we wouldn't be able to have complex costumes or scenery, so that meant the main focus of all of our scenes could be the story, told through the actors and the words and the songs."

The script smartly avoids any mention of Ms. Taymor, and the very few references to the troubled Broadway production are subtle and fleeting. As much as the comic book source material is mined for comedy, the show never devolves into camp, instead remaining mostly faithful to Spider-Man's origin story and familiar characters to tell a concise but cleverly written superhero story. All Moran asks is that audiences suspend their disbelief to be drawn into the action, rather than study any technical achievements that may be happening around them (a revolutionary concept for live theater, right?). And unlike Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, still stuck in previews on Broadway, The Spidey Project was never halted for equipment glitches or emergency line readings.

Doug Katsaros and Adam Podd's original score is evocative of the iconic '60s Spider-Man cartoon theme song, as well as contemporary pop and musical theater. The results are surprisingly effective, from an opening number that sets the scene at Peter's high school to a finale that includes the line, "I want Spider-Man inside of me!"  A song about the burrito chain Chipotle introduces the rivalry between Flash Thompson and Peter Parker. And a solo song for Nilan uses the Spider-Man mantra "With great power comes great responsibility" as its chorus.

Like Taymor's soon-to-be-revised theatrical vision, you probably won't be able to see The Spidey Project ever again. ("If I can manage to get one performance off without getting any cease-and-desist letters, maybe I’ll count my blessings," Moran told the Times in February.) Moran said that he was given volunteer legal advice that "there’s enough leeway in the parody or spoof angle" to proceed, especially since tickets were free and no profit was earned from the show. In fact, I'm told that representatives from Disney (which now owns Marvel, home of Spider-Man) attended the first performance not to shut it down, but to check out the talent on display.

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Of course, The Spidey Project does not necessarily provide a new model for Broadway. The show is entertaining, not groundbreaking. An audience full of 20- and 30-something fanboys and comedy nerds (who snatched up all of the free tickets to The Spidey Project in less than a minute as soon as they become available online) might not be the ideal demographic for most of the other Broadway offerings this season. But Moran has made his point: It's amazing what you can do with some heart and creativity, even without financial support.

For more info about Moran and The Spidey Project, visit thespideyproject.blogspot.com.

Justin Moran is a resident writer and performer with two improv comedy groups at The Magnet Theatre in NYC, and he wrote and directed the original musical POPE! An Epic Musical (Fringe Festival NYC 2010 Winner for Outstanding Music and Lyrics), which played off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortell Theatre in 2010.

-- Daniel Lehman

*This is not an official Back Stage theater review. Read NYC theater reviews online at BackStage.com.

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