As I have been legally instructed not to mention the name of the musical which bears a remarkably strong similarity to this one – the true story of the biggest flop in Broadway history, which came in at a budget of around $75 million – I trust everyone to work out which teenage superhero is hence referred to as ‘Redacted Arachnid’. If there was any danger of the audience missing the point, the show opens with whirring red and blue lights and a theme song with the name conspicuously blanked out. So begins ‘Redacted Arachnid: Switch off the Light‘, the story of the ‘comic book rock opera circus’ which actually became reality.
It’s fantastic source material, and the show is keen to emphasise the parts which really are true – exhorting the audience to “honestly, look up the Wikipedia page” for the bits which seem a little too unbelievable. As someone who was already familiar with the Broadway legend I find writers Caleb Barron and co. have done a fantastic job of communicating the story, realising that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and framing those points to seem just unbelievable enough. Though heavy on exposition it’s not boring, in part because of their skilful choice of facts and the cast’s emphatic performances (the producer-narrator Michael Cohl (Daniel Ergas) looking near-constantly on the edge of a breakdown).
Some of the scenes have the audience close to tears with laughter: a choreography practice with “Touch the spider! Touch the spider! Your uncle’s dead! Your uncle’s dead!” to a Single Ladies dance routine has to be seen to be believed. Meanwhile, I can barely stop laughing at a re-enactment of Act One of the original script, which highlights the absurdities in all the right places. There are inexplicable Greek myths; a particularly gormless ‘Parter Peaker’ (handled admirably by James Akka); a piano lugged to the top of the Chrysler Building. This is the show at its best – the opening-night audience barely stops laughing for a good ten minute stretch, and neither do I.
The character performances are especially fantastic. Joshua Clarke does an excellent job of Bono in a leather jacket and rotating range of pink glasses, and I’m impressed by Harrison Gale, who delivers lines pitch-perfectly across a range of roles with a world-weary New York accent (“How hard is it to swing a man from the ceiling?” “Depends, do you want him to die?”). But excellent comedic performances abound throughout, conveyed with cartoonish facial expressions and vocal ability.
The lighting contributes to the sense of spectacle, providing brilliant spotlights and flashing at the hint of an approaching name. They ease the snappiness of the performance, which zips along at a fair old pace and in and out of four-wall breaking aides with ease. Having been presumably unable to fund the actor suspended from the ceiling (“at least we didn’t spend $75 million on this production!”), the team still create a clear sense of a vaguely collapsing production, an attempt to untangle cables veering into playful slapstick as they collapse in a tangled heap on the floor.
After a stellar first two-thirds the show begins to drag as it enters its final stretch, though in part this is due to the subject-matter: an attempted turn for the serious and muted doesn’t exactly ring true, and (although there’s still some great character performances) the depressing tone doesn’t quite match the irreverent air of the earlier show. Not a joy-ride from start to finish, then, but without a doubt The Owlets’ production is still one of the most enjoyable things I’ve watched all year.