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July 18, 2010

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Career analysis: Spider-Man poses sticky situation for Jennifer Damiano

by Jesse North

When Jennifer Damiano departs Next to Normal tonight, she will be beginning a new chapter in her career: the next big project. While no official statement on casting has been made, the New York Times reports that Damiano has signed on to play Mary Jane in the upcoming mega musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Despite the mountain of publicity this will bring her, is becoming Spider-Man’s girlfriend the best move for a Tony-nominated actress known for playing three-dimensional women?

Since debuting on Broadway in the original cast of Spring Awakening in the ensemble and as an understudy, Damiano’s career has included co-headlining concerts at Joe’s Pub and her acclaimed performance as Natalie in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal. These are tremendous accomplishments for a 19-year-old actress. Her involvement in Spring Awakening and Next to Normal, both Tony nominees for Best Musical (Spring won in 2007), both box offices successes and beloved by critics, has established her as an artsy-type actress. Starring in Spider-Man will shake up this trend.

Spring Awakening and Next to Normal were both “indie” musicals that began off Broadway. Neither were expected to achieve the level of success that they did when they transferred. Granted, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has been plagued by production and financial issues. It’s original big-name stars—Evan Rachel Wood, who was originally supposed to play Mary Jane, and Alan Cumming as Green Goblin—dropped out. Just this Friday, Broadway’s largest PR firm Boneau/Bryan-Brown resigned from Spider-Man’s account. Nevertheless, the show has Marvel Entertainment backing it. It has been reported that the undertaking of this musical has cost upwards of $50 million. This is no Spring Awakening or Next to Normal.

Damiano is exiting Next to Normal, which is now a sturdy production with consistently strong weekly sales. No one has seen Spider-Man yet, but the industry buzz is quite negative (just read any of Michael Riedel’s New York Post columns). Damiano risks leaving a secure show for one that could flop in its initial months. Granted, any Broadway production is a gamble—that’s the nature of the business. And Damiano has certainly taken risks with Spring and Normal—she might even have the magic touch, as those shows went on to great success. Yet signing onto a project that has so many red flags is a risky move for an actress switching over from a sure thing, as is the permanent association to a flop.

Let’s not all be Debbie Downers about Spider-Man though. The webslinger is an international brand that has entertained people of all ages for decades with comic books, toys, and a film franchise that has grossed over $1 billion domestically. Odds are looking good that a few people will want to see Peter Parker take the stage. However, people are buying tickets to see Spider-Man, not Mary Jane.

For a Tony-nominated actress who has held her own next to Alice Ripley in Normal, playing the helpless damsel in distress to a superhero might not be the masterclass in acting Damiano’s skills are begging for. Yes, it’s a flashy project, but how flashy will the role of Mary Jane be? The deepest that any superhero girlfriend has come off in a film is likeable and spunky. How one will be portrayed in a Broadway musical is yet to be seen. Yet my money is on Parker and the villainous Green Goblin for getting the most stage time and acting meat. Mary Jane will have a solo or two devoted to her hardship and love for Peter, and yes, Damiano’s voice will sound great when paired with Bono and The Edge’s score. But other than that, Damiano can expect to be harnessed to Spider-Man for some high-flying wire action and scream a lot.

What Spider-Man will do to help Damiano’s career is put her in the spotlight. There will be a firestorm of press around this show’s opening, and countless “who’s who” articles about the fresh-faced cast. Taking a lead in such a mainstream production will make Damiano known to audiences outside the devout theater-lovers realm. Thanks to a pop culture movement that is once again embracing actors with musical theater skills, Damiano could follow in her Spring Awakening co-star Lea Michele’s footsteps and transition into movies and television. These are all career possibilities that Damiano’s skills are worthy of.

During tonight’s curtain call at Next to Normal, there is no doubt Jennifer Damiano will be cognizant of the much larger stage that awaits her at the Hilton Theatre. She should soak up her accolades and bring to her next role the freshness and spicy attitude she brought to Natalie. If this talented actress is going to get caught in Spider-Man’s web, let’s at least hope she sticks.

What do you think, Rushers? Is stepping into Mary Jane’s Mary Janes a great opportunity for Jennifer Damiano, or could Spider-Man bring her down with it if it’s a dud? Do you think Damiano should have stuck it out in Next to Normal longer, or are you eager to see her tackle something new? Leave all your Damiano-Spidey thoughts in the comments!

1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Laura
    Jul 20 2010

    I’ve seen Jennifer Damiano multiple times as Natalie in N2N. She’s amazing, especially considering she’s only 19. I think she has been with N2N since the beginning, so it’s time for her to move on to her next show. Is Spiderman the right move for her? Only time will tell. I was thinking of other options she could take on B’way, and I don’t think any role besides Mary Jane would give her the attention she deserves. Even if the show flops, she won’t, and with any luck, she’ll gain more recognition that will lead to her next career move.

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