First Nighter: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark Turns Off the Past

Although I'm a first-night Manhattan critic who saw Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark for the first time only three days before its most recently scratched March 15 opening, what follows is not a review. Okay, having seen it from start to finish, I admit this is a review to the extent that I agree with the consensus on its unsatisfying qualities expressed by colleagues in responses written just after the previous postponed February 7 premiere.

On the other hand, I'm not certain I'd join one prominent naysayer who suggested that Julie Taymor's highly publicized production (score by Bono and The Edge, libretto by Taymor and Glen Berger) may rank as one of the worst musicals ever. After all, a writer must be careful about registering such a negative superlative when there've been so many bottom-of-barrel-scraping tuners over the past however many decades.

Among them from only as far back as the '60s, a conscientious critic has to keep in mind Kelly, Via Galactica, Dude, Edward Albee's slash at Breakfast at Tiffany's, Rockabye Hamlet, Twyla Tharp's The Times They Are A-Changin', all three versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel and -- only this season -- Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

Look, folks, the visual aspects of what Taymor has insisted on calling "a circus rock'n'roll drama" and not a "musical" are, and likely will continue to be, commendable. When Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark opens -- if it ever does, June 14, supposedly -- expect set designer George Tsypin and costume designer Eiko Ishioka not only to be nominated for Tonys but to win them.

The current version, however, now acknowledged as needing radical revision by its neophyte producers -- and by Bono, who first approached Taymor with the idea and now seems to be the guiding hand -- could be categorized as just another in a long line of deficient musicals. What distinguishes it from all predecessors is the shocking bankroll. To date, the purveyors, through spokesperson Rick Miramontez, declare that the cost of the musical is $65 million.

That's the gasp-worthy figure quoted for getting the musical to the point where it has to be extensively rethought and revised. Surely, expenses accruing during the overhaul -- which involves a three-week April 19-May 12 shut-down for insertion of changes -- will add heavily to the outrageous sum.

So, yes, the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark story -- not the story told in the beset show at Foxwoods Theatre but the story behind that story -- is now, unfortunately, one of Broadway's most embarrassing, not to say shameful, sagas. More than that, it's truly disgusting when you think what could have been done with that amount by small theaters around the country and/or young playwrights.

Every bit as depressingly, it exemplifies an even larger story -- the transformation of the Great White Way from a collection of buildings dedicated to advancing the art of theater to nothing less than a Broadway theme park -- an east coast Branson, a steel-canyons Las Vegas.

Perhaps not cynically but nonetheless condescendingly while taking on the project, Taymor -- who specializes in creating properties of enormous visual appeal -- recognized that tourists now make up much, if not most, of the audiences for musicals and that they, perhaps no longer trained by film to be scrupulous about narrative integrity and simple human storyline, are happy to be entertained by spectacle.

Who's to say she's wrong? Those directly in front of me, all wearing matching gray hoodies, were members of an out-of-town band due to play at Lincoln Center, and they behaved as if they were having an awesome time. I'd be remiss if I didn't report that this contingent and most of the other ticket buyers at the performance I saw stood up at the curtain call and cheered what they'd just witnessed.

(By the way, the proceedings did contain one of those stop-action moments when the flying apparatus failed to work. I have to say the glitch felt phony to me -- a planned stage-wait so the crowd could get the perverse thrill they'd been hearing about. But I won't push the theory.)

The word out about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is that Broadway is intended as only the first stop for a spectacle that may not recoup its investment here and may not have to. The revenues pouring in when it plays large arenas -- as is evidently planned -- will, it's expected, more than compensate for local losses. And in arenas that accommodate many more thousands than the already large, but by comparison piffling, Foxwoods, nuances like refined acting and literate lyrics -- those possibly to-be-forgotten pluses of one-time Broadway -- mean less to viewers than audacious flying, lighting and sound effects.

Discussing the vision for her "circus rock'n'roll drama," Taymor has been quoted as saying she doesn't see the point of a one-set musical (take that, still-running and money-making Avenue Q). Sadly, although there's plenty of actual soaring in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Taymor, with her outlook, is contributing to setting the bar low for appreciation of what musicals have been and will, here's hoping, continue to be.

Indeed like others before her in, say, the past twenty years, but at mind-numbingly greater cost, she's shown here not what the best musicals are (her Lion King is one of them) but only what mere spectacle can be and what price has to be paid, literally and figuratively, for it.