Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sketched Theatre: The Spidey Project!

I know this isn't a movie, but I just had to do a review of the amazing Spidey Project! It ran for only 2 shows on one night at the People's Improv Theatre, but it deserves all the glowing reviews it can get!
Tried something a little different for this post!

For those of you unaware of what the crap I'm talking about, there's been a backlash from the Julie Taymor Fiasco that is Spiderman: Turn off the Dark. Out of that backlash arose Justin Moran, interested in putting on a Spider-Man musical for zero dollars, in thirty days, with no injuries to staff(maybe someone got a paper-cut from the cardboard and the press is covering it up, who's to say), and open it one day before the 65 million dollar spiderjoke.

So what happened? They did it. With music, and actors, and two sold out shows(Oh and that other musical? Being pushed back for changes after losing their director). And what's more, it was amazing. It was spectacular! It was the ultimate spidey musical.

Ok, some would call it hokey and silly and ridiculous, but when you're making a musical about Spider-Man, those things should be expected. It wasn't just a musical, it was a theatrical experience. It was a show put on by fans, for fans. And the fans loved it. They laughed at every joke and cheered at every song! The music was wonderful and memorable, the jokes were funny, the plot was clever, all the actors were perfect(especially in multiple roles) and the choreography was marvelous.

It was an origins story of course. Writers Justin Moran and Jon Roufaeal focused more on the human aspect of Peter's life for most of the play. It started off innocently with the kids singing about midterms coming up and Flash Thompson asking out Gwen Stacey, the girl Peter has a crush on. Peter gets a job at the daily bugle where he meets Betty Brant, who's strangely infatuated with him, and J. Jonah Jameson, who's obnoxious to everyone. They send him on an assignment to take pictures of Dr. Spiderman's(read spiddermin and played by show visionary Justin Moran) lab. It's there that Peter meets the spider radiated from an old microwave that transforms him into the red and blue hero. They only get into the real spidey costume later in the show(they even went so far as to have him start out in a ninja turtle-esque eyehole mask and whine," Gah! Can you even sew spandex?!").

And it all worked! The plot is interesting and the pacing moves steadily. You really get a sense of Peter changing from a geeky nobody to a hero comfortable in his own wall-clinging shoes.

I have to admit, I'm a bit biased: I love minimalist theatre. My favorite show so far is The 39 steps that recently ended it's run off broadway. So seeing this was just chocolate sauce on already delicious blue and red ice-cream. I'm also biased because the main bad guy is revealed to be the Chameleon and damn if I don't love me some Chameleon!

Spider-Man picked up cars, swung from buildings, and beat up bad guys! Their minimal effects were brilliant. When Spidey made web hand gestures, moving between ladies who held up cardboard cutouts of buildings, the audience was in an uproar of cheering. The fight scenes were daring and well choreographed; one is reminded of 60's batman with sound effects instead of big visual words. And there's one big reveal by the Chameleon using multiple actors to simulate a flashback that's just too clever for words.

The actors were dressed in normal clothes save for a tie here or a mustache there. When they introduced villains(and they had no less than four heavy-hitters), most had just a T-shirt with an animal or a paper mache mask. Spider-Man himself, even when he was in "full" costume, only wore the top half of the Spidey suit with blue jeans and converse.

And it all worked. Why? Because they know how to act! They don't need costumes because they can get their characters along with dialogue and gestures. Flash is a smug jerk. Peter is a quirky but shy. Betty Brant is...well kind of aggressive towards Peter. And Jonah is a loud indignant sexist. "I hired one woman because that's how many I had to hire! You think I'm sexist? Damn right I am! In my day, a woman undressed you with her eyes, then you undressed her, and then you took her! Because that was expected!"

The music was fun and memorable, composed by Doug Katsaros and Adam Podd. It was jazzy enough to remind me of the Danny Elfman score, elegant and masterful enough to belong in a musical, and used just the right amount of synth for the old fashioned Spidey silliness. There's "Who is the Man?" introducing People's fascination with a masked man leaping from rooftops, and "I am a hero" in which Uncle Ben tells Peter how he's a hero with bills and checkbooks, and also the whole great power and great responsibility bit. The "Breaking News" segments, in which a news anchor(standing in front of a cardboard screen) are hilarious. He smiles as he introduce himself, then grimaces to tell the heart-gripping story. And of course there's "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" which is the show's key performance when Peter finally learns what he has to do with his powers.

My absolute favorite would have to be "When I look at you/villain song". Gwen tries to tell Peter that she loves him while Peter keeps having his spider sense go off! Electro, Scorpion and Rhino each try to rob a bank(the same bank presumably?) and just as they're about to monologue into their sad tale of woe, Spidey kicks them in the face! Oh, if only that would happen in comics.

This all leads up to a fantastic power hymn about wanting a hero like Spider-Man inside all of us, ingeniously entitled "I want Spider-Man inside of me." By the end of the show, in a standing ovation, the crowd was singing with the actors(also, #iwantspidermaninsideofme is now trending on twitter).

I do have to say they were able to get away with a number of things we'd crucify a major movie for trying to pull. Peter Parker getting bitten by spider radiated by an old microwave? A main character named Dr. Spiderman? Flash getting his own song about chipotle? Blasphemy in the hands of the studio, but campy silly genius in the hands of nerds. Why is this? Do we feel they have no right to mess with our myths? Is it passable when it's fan fiction but not when it's introduced as cannon? Would we be so lenient if Marvel had given them money and this was a major show?

I tell myself we all need to take our comics less seriously and that we need to open our minds up to knew ideas and stories. I feel that most nerds expect completely new and different stories told in exactly the same way with exactly the same characters. How do we expect to move forward if we keep going in a continuous loop? We're going to miss a lot of fun experiences if we're too picky. But then I'm reminded of a super villain fashion show with the titled character named "Swiss Miss".

Anyways, that's a discussion for a different day. This was not a contest to see who was correct in their interpretation of Spiderman or who was nerider than thou, it was an event to see if a good show could be put on without gobs of money, ridiculous costumes and choreography, in an actual(if not ridiculously short) amount of time, and Justin Moran and his colleagues did that in spades. The music was fantastic, the acting was incredible, the script was well written, clever and funny, and it was a nerd cultural experience the likes of which may not be seen for quite awhile. I would gladly pay actual money to see it again.

I understand this was a one shot deal, only to prove it could be done, but here are things I would like to see happen:

-footage of the show put on youtube so all can see its amazement
-music from the show become downloadable so I can listen to it over and over again
-a performance put on at comicon(it was only an hour, and would not that be the perfect venue?!)

If you would also like to see these things, please show your love to Justin and the rest of his group over at the SpideyProject blog, the facebook page, and the twitter account.

UPDATE: You can see videotaped version of the show here and download the music FOR FREE here


  1. I admit that I'm a nerd who enjoys her books/cartoons/comics true to the original form that made me a fan to begin with. But, to be honest, when I've seen a movie based on a book or comic that I know nothing about, I'm more openminded in enjoying it for what it is- just a movie, rather than a movie based on a book or comic. That's the problem. Most movies or shows based on another form is very seldom true to the original and that's where fans get up in arms about it.

    With that being said, walking into The Spidey Project knowing it was an improv show with minimal glitter made it quite enjoyable for what it was. Chances are it won't catch hold of the Robot Porn fans and Micheal Bay worshipers who dig random explosions and near-naked Megan Fox scenes.

    But, it was clever, creative, and really impressive given the time they had to work on it and the resources at their disposal. Thanks again for the invite! I'm so glad I got to watch such an interesting take on Sipderman!

  2. Your welcome! I wish more people had showed up!

    I agree, I'm usually more liberal with properties I haven't seen(I actually liked the two fantastic four movies) but tend to knit pick to death properties I love and grew up with(organic webshooters on Spiderman? What?).

    I really liked all the quirkiness and silliness of the show, as another review said, "Tongue firmly placed in cheek" I just feel that if the new movie came out with the orgins of Peter's powers were revealed to be Dr. Spiderman's old microwave, we as a nerd nation would rise up in a tsunami of nerd rage. Perhaps its because it was a different, less concrete medium.

    Still, amazing show.