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Quality of stage productions from movies varies widely

John DeFore

Comic-book fanboys and showbiz kibitzers alike have watched with anxiety and/or schadenfreude as the Broadway extravaganza "Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark" suffers one setback after another. The most recent mishap, just before Christmas, saw one of the performers playing Spidey drop 20 feet from a faulty harness rig, breaking bones and canceling performances.

A trip to the video store might shed light on the level of unchecked creative ambition endangering the play, which was written and directed by Julie Taymor. Taymor, after all, hatched the gargantuan folly "Across the Universe" (Sony), which appropriated Beatles tunes for a counterculture-set love story but bit off too many pop-cultural themes to manage coherently.

Taymor's fondness for extremes paid off better in 1999's "Titus" (Fox), which dressed Shakespeare up in time travel and topical real-life allusions but mostly kept the Bard's emotional goals in focus. (Her current Shakespeare film, "The Tempest," founders in comparison.)

But film buffs spending their winter break on the Great White Way will have plenty to see, even if the Spidey troubles continue. To the dismay of many devotees, contemporary Broadway success almost always requires some connection to the movies.

While Hollywood has traditionally adapted plays for the screen — current stage productions of "Mamma Mia!" and "La Cage Aux Folles" suggest the cameras sometimes miss the point — recent years have seen things going the other way.

Tourists walking out of musicals based on "The Addams Family" or "Shrek" might find themselves desperate to rewatch the much-superior movies (and TV show) that inspired them. The most recent musicalization to open is Bartlett Sher's version of Pedro Almodóvar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," and few fans of the Spanish auteur have had much good to say about it.

Though its cast is star-studded (boasting thespian heroes like Patti LuPone and Brian Stokes Mitchell) and the staging pulls off a few nice tricks, the musical offers not a single memorable song — and the manic quirkiness of the original becomes oddly generic when translated into show-tune-ese.

If it doesn't adapt an existing film, the least a would-be hit can do is hire a movie star as the lead. That's a dispiriting reality for actors hoping to make a living on plays alone, but it at least lets audiences compare how performers meet the very different challenges of acting for a camera and holding down the stage.

Jeffrey Wright, it turns out, is pretty brilliant on both fronts. Currently starring in the John Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation") play "A Free Man of Color," Wright almost can make you forgive Guare's impulse to squeeze at least two or three more storylines than he can manage into this sweeping tale of a wealthy, womanizing former slave.

Looking back through his filmography, though, Wright's fans may decide they don't care about his testing his mettle and marquee value in front of a live audience. Look how much he brings to films that pay nearly no attention to him: Producers of the latest Bond movies probably gave more thought to luxury-brand endorsement deals than they did to casting Wright, but his morally conflicted appearance in "Quantum of Solace" (MGM) lends the adventure gravitas; Jim Jarmusch's financiers surely underestimated his importance to "Broken Flowers" (Focus) compared with that of Bill Murray's more famous supporting players, Sharon Stone and Jessica Lange; and who would have thought that the most interesting thing in an Oliver Stone film about George W. Bush ("W.," from Lionsgate) would be Wright's Colin Powell? "A Free Man" shows that Wright doesn't need to be top-billed in order to score.

Sometimes, though, the stage can be a boon for stars in need of a spark. In "The Merchant of Venice," Al Pacino was so praised (and controversial) as Shylock that the production moved from Central Park to Broadway — and had its run extended when that booking neared its end. Keep that in mind if you're unlucky enough to see his recent duds "Righteous Kill," "88 Minutes" or "Two for the Money": Wild Al's career might be adrift at the moment, but put the right material in front of him and he can still make people talk.

And then there's the real comeback kid of this season, Paul Reubens. In both Los Angeles and New York, the scandal veteran staged a note-perfect revival of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." Updating his original material just enough to provide an additional layer of winking self-awareness, Reubens hit all his nostalgic notes without coming across as a has-been exploiting his old fans. Overgrown kids who can't make the trip before the show's Sunday finale can console themselves with Image Entertainment's new "complete collection" of the TV show: At less than $40, it's barely half the price of the cheapest tickets to the play — and there's no holiday-overbooked air travel necessary.