‘Spider-Man’ is a freak show — and not half bad

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What Mr. Carney lacks in pure ruggedness he makes up for with a hangdog adorableness. Miss Carpio, who has seen her role greatly reduced to the point that it may seem a little pointless, still sings with beauty and tenderness, even though her feet never touch the ground. Miss Damiano radiates a sweet, Mary-Jane vulnerability and shares a pretty duet with Mr. Reeve while hanging on a fire escape on a starry night.

Mr. Page, though, is the real star. He’s a Shakespearean actor who played the title role in “The Grinch” and knows how to walk that fine line between camp and earnestness. He has a villainous voice that commands and excellent comic timing, and he provides the impish joy this show desperately needs. (Just try not to laugh when he makes a Shake Weight joke or navigates an automated phone system.)

The first act drags as the storytellers pack in as much background as possible, but the pace picks up in Act 2. The songs, by U2’s Bono and the Edge, have been gradually Broadway-ized, or at least de-Edge-ified. Gone, for the most part, are tons of jangling guitars. If there was once a sense that this Irish duo simply could write two dozen new songs and plunk them into a musical, that time is gone.

That doesn’t mean that the music entirely works or is consistent in tone and approach. Some of it is weak, such as the Marilyn Manson-like “A Freak Like Me Needs Company.” But “Rise Above” and “Boy Falls From the Sky” are standouts, straight from a rock arena. The wispy “If the World Should End” is pretty, and the bombastic “Pull the Trigger” tries to fuse classic Broadway with techno, to mixed results.

The rebooted musical even playfully references the songwriters at several points, as when U2’s song “Vertigo” blasts at a school dance. There are other little in-jokes. Guess the title of the play that Mary-Jane, a fledgling actress, is making in her stage debut? “The Fly.” OK, it’s not “The Book of Mormon,” but the little jokes that pop up in “Spider-Man” show the musical was at least created by humans.

Other highlights of imagination include the scene “Bouncing Off the Walls” in which Mr. Reeve, suspended by cables, slams around his bedroom, and an odd little detour when Parker takes on an inflatable giant wrestler being manipulated by a very visible man. Both these scenes don’t try to hide the trick but still produce a childlike wonderment.

George Tsypin’s sets are ingenious, particularly his Chrysler Building, with its antenna pushing out toward the audience, with a little trail of tiny cars lighted on the street far below. He favors a bold, pop-art style that overemphasizes angles and perspective. When Peter and Mary-Jane walk home from school, huge panels depicting houses along the route open and close as if a comic book is being read. One of the most visually stunning scenes has Arachne’s followers weave huge swaths of saffron fabric as they swing across the stage, one of Miss Taymor’s memorable images.

Glitches remain, though. Too much smoke one night pretty much destroyed a Goblin scene, and the sound system often leaves the lyrics muddy. But the stunts now seem assured (even if the Goblin’s flying isn’t as sexy as Spider-Man’s). And put your hands together at the curtain call for performer Christopher Tierney, who as Spider-Man almost broke his neck in the name of entertainment and returned. Whatever you think of the show, he is a trooper.

In the end, you know how it all ends. SPLAT! goes the Goblin. Big SMOOCH! between Mary-Jane and Peter Parker.

It would have been different if Miss Taymor had more time and we had more patience. But it’s not so bad without her. Fanboys, especially, will get giddy and clutch their Playbills happily, and maybe will want to come back.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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