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Early reviews anger 'Spider-Man' producers

More trouble for the producers of the ill-starred Broadway play "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark."

Critics at Newsday and Bloomberg have broken a longstanding tradition by publishing reports more than five weeks before its Feb. 7 opening night. The ambitious $65 million play, Broadway's costliest ever, is playing in previews as its producers tinker with the product.

Plagued by financial and technical issues that have delayed its opening several times, the play suffered yet another setback on Tuesday when a lead actress, Natalie Mendoza, was reported to be quitting the show after suffering a concussion during a performance last week. Also last week, a stuntman was injured after he plunged from a platform, forcing producers to suspend several shows while safety issues were worked out.

Linda Winer's piece in Newsday on Christmas acknowledged that she "broke Broadway's gentleperson's agreement," by purchasing a ticket for a preview.

The common practice on Broadway is to invite critics to one of several "critics' previews" right before opening once the producers and creative team have deemed the show finished. Their reviews are embargoed until after the curtain falls on opening night.

But Winer wrote that with all the news about the show — the opening delayed for the fourth time and audiences buying full-price tickets for previews — "it seems that critics are now the only interested parties who can't see the bride before the wedding."

Production spokesman Rick Miramontez said he was disappointed about the early reviews.

"Whatever reason the critic or their editor may have, it does not mask the fact that for decades, musicals have developed in front of paying audiences before critics are INVITED," he said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.

"While we are certainly not naive about the media scrutiny attached to this production, as we have been accommodating throughout, this unprecedented new development is troubling, to say the least."

Winer's piece was less a review than a report, though she did acknowledge that the show's vaunted flying effects are "exciting and scary, in a circus way," and that director Julie Taymor was "said to be making much-needed changes to the meandering book, especially in the weak second act." The rest of the criticism came from audience members Winer interviewed, one of whom complained the music was "weak" and another who said she "didn't think this is theater for adults."

Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard wrote a full-out review, although he acknowledged that this was an "interim report" and he fully intended to re-review the show and publish it the day after "Spider-Man" opens. Like Winer, Gerard purchased a ticket (one of the $292.50 "premium" seats in the orchestra).

He praised the sets, lighting and choreography, acknowledged the short-lived thrill of some of the flying effects, but came down hard on the show itself: "an unfocused hodge-podge of story-telling, myth-making and spectacle that comes up short in every department. Can it be saved? Ask me on Feb. 8."

Reached by phone, Gerard explained that "in the past, previews were given for a limited time and tickets were discounted pretty heavily." But, in the case of "Spider-Man," the ads don't acknowledge the show is a work-in-progress and most theatergoers are paying full price.

"My own feeling," he added, "is that when they postponed from December to January to, now February, asking critics to wait was just too much. I had an obligation to the readers to get involved in the conversation."

With his review, he noted, "you're getting more than gossip, more than a hospital report, more than a ga-ga report about the flying."

Gerard, who has also covered theater for the New York Times, Variety and New York Magazine, said there were several precedents for writing early reviews. When shows tried out regularly on the road, critics like Richard Coe in the Washington Post and Elliot Norton in several Boston newspapers reviewed unfinished products and "were proud to be part of the process."

And a couple of Broadway shows with unusually lengthy preview periods, "Nick & Nora" (1991, 71 previews) and "Sarava" (1979, 39 previews), were reviewed by critics before they officially opened.

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