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Theatre Unleashed's 'The Spidey Project'

Let’s be clear: Julie Taymor and U2’s collaboration train wreck of a success Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is not playing in Los Angeles. No. But the original and first Spiderman musical is. It’s called The Spidey Project and had an initial run off-Broadway a few years back. Instead of the elaborate and self-serious plot and musical numbers (that frequently had cast members of the big budget Broadway musical in the hospital), this version is strictly tongue-in-cheek, and low-low-low-budget fun.

Playing at Theatre Unleashed’s space at the Studio/Stage in Los Angeles, The Spidey Project is having its Los Angeles premiere from March 8-April 14.  Part parody, part heartfelt musical, this experiment in combining comic book characters with the musical format comes back to us with mixed results.

The story is familiar and simple: Geek social misfit Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider which transforms him from nerd to super human faster than you can say “web-slinger.” Soon enough he has become the hero of his city, fighting crime and amassing an ego the size of a skyscraper. Along the way he attempts to court his high school love Gwen Stacey, work at his internship at the Daily Bugle as a photographer and defend the city from all sorts of mutant-like bad guys. There’s a lot going on for sure, and for a scant running time of 75 minutes, it certainly is a lot to take in.

Charmingly utilizing a sort of micro-budget approach, the set design by Katie Sikkema is overly simplified with occasional props like a table that doubles as a set of lockers, and a backdrop that is a simple white wall on which a few comic-book inspired paintings are hung to establish place. Costume changes (also overseen by Sikkema) are minimal, but efficient in handling the changing of characters by the small cast.

Speaking of the cast, this is the sort of jolly group that seems as if they banded together to “put on a show” Little Rascals  style.  While they are all game and highly energetic, the acting and singing chops are varied and not always successful. It’s not that anyone is bad, it’s just kind of like walking into a really good-natured high school production.

Ryan J. Hill, who plays Peter Parker/Spiderman, is an appealing actor with the best of the male voices, and Kyle Cooper, who plays a number of characters including the school’s arrogant jock Flash Thompson, is also fun to watch. The standout of the cast, however, is newcomer Lauren Turner as Peter’s Daily Bugle supervisor Betty Brant. Played as a sort of desperate Karen Walker, her comic timing is impeccable and her voice soars over the rest of the cast. Sadly, her role is limited although there is a moment where I truly believed she was going to become the villain of the piece (which got me excited). Unfortunately, after a hilarious scene where her jealousy of Peter’s relationship with Gwen surfaces, her character seems to disappear. Too bad, because Theatre Unleashed has a star on their hands.

The band—allocated to what appears to be a closet off of the left hand side of the theatre—is problematic in that if you sit too close to that side of the theatre, you can barely hear the singers over the music attacking you from the right. It’s too bad, because a lot of the lyrics ended up being lost due to this bit of odd staging. Because of the small space, it’s hard to figure out what they could have done to remedy this, but it’s sort of an issue.

Overall, it’s a diverting evening with mixed results. There were a gaggle of young women in front of me that laughed hysterically from the moment the show started until the end. I’d hazard a guess they knew the cast, because their reaction was a bit extreme compared to the rest of the audience. Not a misfire for sure, but it really all comes down to the show’s book which doesn’t work.  Tonally, the show is all over the place. While it could have been a parody of Broadway shows in general, it edges there but doesn’t quite make it. As a total spoof of the comic book genre, it dances around it, but never fully commits. And as a straightforward musical about a guy coming to terms with his new powers (or a guy embracing his newfound stardom), it also doesn’t fully succeed—mostly because we’re not sure if there is going to be a punchline coming.

Thankfully, the cast is so dedicated to what’s on stage, there is a bit of infectious energy to it. Ultimately, the short running time is a gift. And so is that Turner girl, because she was pretty fantastic.

The Spidey Project runs from March 8-April 14th at the Studio/Stage, 520 Western Ave., L.A. Tickets are $20 at the door, or $16 if purchased online. Visit
theatreunleashed.com for more information.

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