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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

On Theater: 'Spider-Man' takes a flier

The Greeks did it. Peter Pan and Mary Poppins do it. But nobody has done it faster, scarier or while carrying heavier baggage than the flying actors in "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."

At least that's the $65 million challenge of the historic, injury-plagued smash/disaster (choose one) unfolding amid such panic and promise at the specially customized (and renamed) Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street.

Oh, and Trent Kowalik of Wantagh also did it - 25 feet off the Broadway stage - until last March, when he got too big to fly dramatically as Billy Elliot. Trent, now 15 and studying at the American Ballet Theatre school, says: "The first time I did it, it was crazy. The scariest time was when I got a little bit too close to the edges of the proscenium during rehearsals. But after a while, it was definitely a thrill. And so cool."

Asked if he has advice for Spidey, his nine stunt doubles and the rest of the high-flying comic-book characters in the technically daunting new musical, Trent, ever the professional, recommends: "Just do what you're told to be as safe as possible. And have fun."

It is safe to assume that fun is not the primary motivating force around the set of "Spider-Man" now. The musical, created by director Julie Taymor and U2's Bono and The Edge, is bearing the burden and anticipation of being the most expensive, most technically advanced, most dangerous show with the most rocky gestation period and the biggest potential global brand.

And, of course, it is now also the most hysterically scrutinized first Broadway preview. Ever. When the long-delayed show finally had its first public performance last Sunday, the production, which doesn't open for review until Jan. 11, stopped five times with technical problems, most infamously for two separate snafus that left actors dangling above the audience. (The concussion suffered last week by Natalie Mendoza, the actress playing the evil spider, was reportedly caused offstage by falling scenery, not by flying.)

On a taped "60 Minutes" segment before the preview, Taymor said she wants "the theater of it right in the laps of the audience." She was probably speaking metaphorically, though, after the magic she made in "The Lion King," one can't be too sure.

Then again, actors have been flying - or trying to fly - before Andrew Lloyd Webber even sent cats to heaven. According to Arnold Aronson, professor of scenography and chairman of the theater-arts program at Columbia University, flying is the oldest theatrical device. "We know that the Greeks used flying machines," he says, "but scholars have different ideas on when and how they began.

"A winch and lever system strong enough to support an actor in a chariot would be fairly cumbersome," he says, adding that there was no backstage for graceful escape. As early as 423 BC, Aristophanes was lampooning Socrates in the social satire "The Clouds." "The character Socrates is in a basket above the stage. He calls off to the stagehand, asking him to be careful not to drop him. So there was such a mechanism - and it was probably rather unreliable."

We don't have to look quite so far back to find artists wrestling with unreliable stage mechanics. Like "Spider-Man," the $10 million "Titanic" was considered too expensive in 1997 to go out of town for tryouts. Previews in New York were so rocky that the model ship wouldn't even sink. The show opened to mostly negative reviews, but won five Tonys (including best musical) and ran two years.

During "Mary Poppins" previews in 2006, the big Victorian house went off the track, bringing the show to a halt. The performance was canceled, but the nanny and her umbrella continue flying up to the balcony today.

In fact, for all the up-to-the-nanosecond technology in "Spider-Man," isn't there a retro feel to what Lesley Stahl described on "60 Minutes" as a "comic-book, rock-opera circus?"

If you take away the computer wizardry and flight maneuvers modeled on the flying cameras used at football games, doesn't the emphasis on speed records (50 mph), aerial acrobatics and injured actors (one with two broken wrists, one with hurt feet) remind you of the buzz around British mega-musicals in the '80s?

Remember the excitement about a flying helicopter in "Miss Saigon," a falling chandelier in "Phantom of the Opera" and, my special least favorite, the roller skating cast of "Starlight Express"? In 1987, people pretending to be trains skated at 30 mph, up and down ramps and across computerized bridges around the theater. Technical problems postponed the opening twice. The actor playing the Japanese train broke his ankle in rehearsal. And falls were so common that theatergoers on different nights would compare body counts.

It was hard not to worry about actors' safety and wonder if theater schools would soon be teaching skating instead of diction. At the time, director Trevor Nunn seemed almost to brag when he said, "If anybody misses a mark by a second, they've crashed into something, everybody's on the floor and the performance is a wreck."

At "Spider-Man," the New York Department of Labor approved dozens of stunts before the first preview. According to Maria Somma, spokeswoman for Actors' Equity Association, the DOL comes in whenever a show has flying "especially over the audience."

The actors' union, under increased pressure since last week's injury, enforced its standard safety protocol plus, Somma says, "a little more" because of the "technical enormousness of the flying. . . . Our people were there at the first day of rehearsals, talking to the actors, giving them information. When a design sketch becomes reality, it may be different from what you expected. Everything must be really choreographed, including exits and scenery and props."

Although she won't talk about specifics, she confirms "there were a couple of things that didn't seem safe. We expressed concern to the general manager and changes were made to eliminate potential problems. We were at the dress and technical rehearsals, the first performance and will periodically go back after opening."

Such talk seems very far away from an entertainment that wants to be art but needs to compete with arena rock, Cirque du Soleil and the three "Spider-Man" movies plus the upcoming one in 3-D. Taymor, whose "Lion King" has grossed $4.2 billion globally, says, "I don't think anything can be really creative without danger and risks." Aristophanes might agree.

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