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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Shedding a little light on 'Spider-Man'

Creative envelopes are being pushed and safety rules rethought at "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the mega-monster, $65-million show that's eating more money and making bigger headlines than any musical - make that any live cultural anything - in New York memory. The other day, I got a Google alert about the show from Pakistan.

Also being pushed, like it or not, is the unwritten rule that keeps professional critics from commenting on a production before its official opening. After four premiere push-backs (now to Feb. 7), four high-profile injuries, 19 previews at full price ($75-$150, almost double through brokers), and public investigations by state and federal safety agencies, it seems that critics are now the only interested parties who can't see the bride before the wedding.

So I broke Broadway's gentleperson's agreement with the media and bought a ticket for Thursday's preview. The 1,900-seat house has been selling out, especially during the holidays. Meanwhile, safety measures are being secured and director Julie Taymor is said to be making much-needed changes to the meandering book, especially the weak second act, without losing the many amazing stage pictures.

I understand that is the official purpose of previews. In this case, however, it feels right to see what everyone else has been seeing and share some preliminary observations. And, especially after chief aerialist Christopher Tierney fell from a 30-foot platform Monday, it has been getting ugly out there.

Nobody fell or was hurt at Thursday's performance and one can only hope that the new safety protocols will keep it that way. Still, there definitely was a kind of NASCAR bloodlust among even the most civilized theatergoers. Elliott Rauh, who runs a theater in Baltimore, told me he was wowed by the stunts, but acknowledged that "the sense that something unsafe might happen is spectacular."

Indeed, the up-close flying really is exciting and scary, in a circus way. If nothing else bad happens, eventually the scenes may lose the taint of disaster. On Thursday, the company needed three Spidey doubles - one for flying, one for dancing, one for talking - to replace Tierney (who is expected to move to rehab Monday after spine surgery).

Criminally, Tierney's flying replacement, the one who manages the most extraordinary feats, was not identified in the program. His name is Joshua Kobak, and his daring (especially in a fight scene with Patrick Page's terrific Green Goblin) was a highlight of the show.

Thomas F. Knapp, a frequent theatergoer from Locust Valley, told me he admired the sets and the special effects, and trusted that Taymor will be able to fix the lack of stylistic continuity. "The music is the weakest thing," he said about the surprisingly conventional Broadway-pop score by U2's Bono and the Edge. Despite early announcements that the musicians would be back from touring to help fix their show before Christmas, they're not due back now until after the new year.

Asked whether the show could succeed without better music, Knapp said, "If 'Titanic' and 'Miss Saigon' could succeed, anything can. Besides, if I want art, I'll go to see 'Carmen' at the Met. This is entertainment."

Sandy Nathan of Westport, Conn., said she enjoyed seeing her grandchildren, age 10 and 13, loving the show. "But I don't think this is theater for adults." Tracy Evans of Houston called the design "spectacular," but didn't understand the four narrators, called the Geek Chorus, who periodically stop the action to explain what's going on.

Clearly, the pressure is on to compete with arena rock, the Spidey movies and video games, without alienating the comic-book cognoscenti and mainstream Broadway audience. The show also must be safe, without losing the thrill of dangerous abandon. Can this be done? The whole world - no kidding - is watching.


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