In the face of the endless delays and injuries in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, one Spider-musical hit the New York stage precisely on time and under budget, and it wasn't by Julie Taymor. The Spidey Project, a Spider-Man parody musical not endorsed by Marvel, played Monday, March 14th to a packed house with none of its bigger brother's problems. On February 11, veteran off-Broadway creator Justin Moran boasted that he could successfully put on a Spider-Man musical in one month on a budget of $0 in a video posted on Facebook. Timed to play one day before Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark was scheduled to officially premiere on March 15, a countdown clock on the Spidey Project website ticked away as the volunteer cast and crew rushed to write, choreograph and stage the show. The Spidey Project caught the eye of various news outlets and geek celebrity director Kevin Smith, and free tickets to the musical's two performances in the 200-seat The People's Improv Theater sold out online within minutes. A small and eager crowd even swarmed the PIT hours ahead of time, full of fans who had missed the online show hoping for tickets in the show's ticket lottery or seats from the waitlist.
Competently performed by a small live band, much of The Spidey Project's score is pleasant if somewhat forgettable, full of intentionally cheesy synthesizers and standard crescendos, but for a musical written over a weekend, there's nothing to complain about. The show's greatest strengths lie in the actors and its playful and creative staging and script, astonishingly written by Justin Moran and Jon Roufaeal in just two days. Travis Nilan—who resembles nothing so much as a young Kevin Bacon—gives a strong leading performance, with a fine voice and unselfconsciously bendy face full of warm good humor and awkward charm. With a wiry athleticism, he bounds and tumbles across the stage as Spider-Man as cardboard buildings sway behind him in a special effect that is both amusingly cheap and weirdly effective. Comic actors Claire Neumann, Louie Pearlman and Jon Roufaeal take turns stealing the scene as flustered and infatuated secretary Betty Brant, blowhard editor J. Jonah Jameson and paranoid news anchor Kent Holbrook respectively.
What makes the show work is the fact that it's both a heartfelt take on the Spider-Man origin story and a fond but genuinely funny parody. The standard hero's journey moments of Peter Parker's transformation are affectionately tweaked by making them simultaneously incongruously ordinary and amusingly overblown. The radioactive spider in the lab is a result not of Dr. Spiderman's (pronounced “Spidderman”) experiments, but instead the radiation from his ancient and dangerous microwave. His famous “With great power...” advice is slipped into a song in which Peter's seemingly humble Uncle Ben seizes upon his nephew's slightest praise to proclaim himself a “real hero of men” for paying the mortgage and remembering the cable bill. Peter's romantic rival, the stock character bully Flash Thompson, is re-imagined as a shamelessly cocky charmer that a nice girl might actually fall for, if not for his nasty temper. “Chipotle”, his duet with Gwen Stacy, is both the show's big dance number and one of the funniest songs in the musical. In a moment of inspired humor, the song seizes on the inherent funniness of teenage bravado, as Flash tries to make a study-date at a chain Mexican restaurant seem like the height of exotic romance and nearly succeeds. Even the act of superheroism itself is mined for laughs—“When I Look at You/Villain Song” is a tour de force of humorous juxtaposition and physical comedy, as Spider-Man rushes back and forth between irritated and rushed fights with a succession of increasingly lame villains and Gwen's sweetly sung confession of love.
While the gonzo, unauthorized, let's-put-on-a-show nature of The Spidey Project is much of its charm, I find myself saddened that it will probably vanish into Youtube obscurity, never to be put on again. It's a fun, well-made, easy to love musical which could easily enliven comic book conventions and high schools everywhere. The final version of Turn Off The Dark will be well served if it has half of The Spidey Project's heart.