Theater reviews: Up and down on Broadway

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 11, 2012 - 4:57 PM

A blockbuster musical shows why it's been panned, and a star-filled dramedy proves entirely buzz-worthy.

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Stockard Channing, left, and Stacy Keach in "Other Desert Cities."

Photo: Joan Marcus, Philip Rinaldi Publicity

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NEW YORK - All those negative news stories about "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the accident-prone Broadway show with a reported $65 million budget, had an unintended consequence. They have made the musical by U2's Bono and the Edge, which was widely panned, critic-proof.

Last week, like many weeks before, the show was again sold out. "Spider-Man" continues to finish in the top tier at the box office, keeping company with "The Lion King" and "The Book of Mormon" as it pulls in more than $1 million a week.

Perhaps "Spider-Man" has a NASCAR-like attraction for the global patrons flocking to the Foxwoods Theatre. People come to see it for the potential accidents as the nine acrobatic actors who play the title role execute flying sequences over the audience.

The attraction is certainly not the lame story, co-written by original director Julie Taymor and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. The book is a boring muddle about how Spider-Man (Reeve Carney) got his powers via an accident with his mad-scientist nemesis Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Patrick Page). There also is a Greek-style spider goddess, Arachne (Christina Sajous), a role that is beautiful to watch but has no real relation to the narrative.

The muddle also extends to the music, all of which sounds alike and seems like outtakes from U2's "The Joshua Tree." Songs start with seeping keyboards, then the bass and drums kick in with the vocals. Spidey, it seems, is Bono Jr.

On the Friday I saw it, Page was magnetic, investing Green Goblin with a joker-like glee. He and similarly commendable Sajous were in a show by themselves. The rest of the cast was totally lacking. Carney had little presence or charisma. And he never seemed to believe that his character was a human being instead of a cartoon. The actor playing Spider-Man's love interest, Mary Jane (Rebecca Faulkenberry), had glaring pitch problems. In a moment when Spidey was supposed to be enthralled by Mary Jane, Carney instead looked quizzical, as his singing partner went all over the place vocally.

"Spider-Man" has lots of special effects. The design, by George Tsypin (sets), Donald Holder (lighting) and Eiko Ishioka (costumes), often is inventive and eye-catching. But without a compelling story, all that's left with "Spider-Man" is acrobatics. And if that's what you're going for, you'd be better off seeing a show by Cirque du Soleil or St. Paul's Circus Juventas.

Star-studded 'Other Desert Cities' is an oasis

Three blocks away, Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" is a conventional delight. The light drama, produced by Lincoln Center Theater at the Booth Theatre on 45th Street, stars Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach as Polly and Lyman Wyeth, Hollywood stalwarts (he was a star and she a writer) who have retired to Palm Springs.

The action is set at the holidays as the Wyeths' two children, writer Brooke (Rachel Griffiths) and reality show creator Trip (Justin Kirk), visit. Polly's sister Silda (Judith Light) also has arrived for some special family time. What unfolds is typical family drama. Brooke, who has had writer's block since her first book seven years ago, has finally written another work. It's not a novel but a memoir about a brother who died. Her book threatens to out family secrets that Polly and Lyman, now members of the Republican Party establishment and onetime friends of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, cannot abide.

The production, directed by Joe Mantello, crackles. The action, which takes place on John Lee Beatty's semi-circle set, never flags. It remains absorbing from the bright opening (Kenneth Posner did the lighting) through the end, with all the stars earning their keep. Channing's deadpan and caustic delivery is just right. Keach has gravitas and faded-star charisma that might no longer work in Hollywood but that you can still see.

When Judith Light enters the scene, she is like a tornado that spins away, leaving people wondering what just happened. She beautifully unspools her character's spirit. Griffiths and Kirk give understated, just-right performances. "Other Desert Cities" does not have the best title or even a history of stage accidents to get press and draw gawkers. But it is well worth the trip to New York.

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