What 1993 Broadway hit ran for over 900 performances and won 7 Tonys including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score (inspiring not one but two different Broadway Cast Recordings), yet is only now getting its first major Los Angeles production since its 1996 National Tour played the Ahmanson? 

The answer: Kander and Ebb’s Kiss Of The Spider Woman—The Musical.

The fact that Spider Woman is finally getting its L.A. Intimate Theater premiere should be reason enough for any lover of musicals to make a beeline for the Bootleg. That this Nick DeGruccio directed-Lee Martino choreographed Havoc Theatre Company production could pretty much transfer as-is to the Ahmanson or the Pasadena Playhouse puts this Kiss right at the top of anyone’s Fall 2008 Must-See List. In Havoc’s Spider Woman, only the number of seats is small.

Cineastes will recall Hector Babenco’s 1985 film adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel, which won William Hurst the Oscar for his performance as Molina, a gay South American department store window dresser imprisoned as a “sexual offender, arrested for corrupting a minor. Male,” who shares a cell with political prisoner Valentin, a “key link to terrorist groups.” This would hardly be the stuff of a musical if not for the presence of glamorous movie goddess Aurora, the memory of whose film roles gives Molina hope, and the strength to go on living.

In Terrence McNally’s book, Kiss Of The Spider Woman—The Musical’s Aurora becomes the star of countless movie musicals, played over and over again in Molina’s memory, and recreated on stage in fantasy sequences with prisoners doubling as back-up dancers. Following their work in Cabaret and Chicago, no song-writing team could have been better suited to provide the sound track for these movie musical numbers than John Kander and Fred Ebb, whose songs here work both in their original movie context and as commentaries on Molina and Valentin’s imprisonment.

In “Where You Are,” Aurora sings, “You’ve got to learn how not to be where you are. And if you find that you land in jail, a little fantasy will not fail,” a creed which Molina has taken to heart. “I Do Miracles” follows a torture sequence which leaves Valentin bruised and bloody and in need of a miracle. “Though the last of the whip has caused your flesh to tear, I will place my lips on you everywhere, and I’ll do miracles.” “Good Times” gives Molina and Valentin hope that “whatever was grim is going to be grand” because “there’s going to be good times, nothing but good times.”

Only one of Aurora’s movie roles scared, and continues to terrify Molina, and that is the Spider Woman. “When she kisses someone—a child even—they died,” Molina tells Valentin, and it is the Spider Woman whose presence remains constant in this prison of death and despair.

Kiss Of The Spider Woman—The Musical works on many levels. It is a powerful commentary on the use of torture as a means of getting information from political prisoners. It is also a love story, albeit an unexpected one, between two very different men. And it is a story of change, of a macho Marxist revolutionary learns to see a “ridiculous faggot window dresser” with different eyes, and a self-described coward willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for love.

Spider Woman features some of Kander and Ebb’s best songs. In addition to Aurora’s movie tunes, there’s also the perky “Dressing Them Up,” in which Molina describes how he not only dresses up his store mannequins, but also the jail cell in which he has already spent over two years of his life; “Over The Wall,” with horny prisoners imagining the life (and the “big busted women”) that await them outside the prison walls; and the power anthem, “The Day After That,” a cry for the freedom of oppressed people anywhere—“And the war we’ve fought to win, I promise you we will win, if not tomorrow, then the day after that or the day after that.”

Nick DeGruccio, as this year’s Ovation Award nominations once again prove, is L.A.’s preeminent director of musicals. Here again, he works his magic in transporting the audience from the dank and terrifying cells which house Kiss’s political prisoners to the fantasy world of movie musicals, choreographed by the brilliantly inventive Lee Martino. (The original Broadway production needed two choreographers, one for the prison sequences and another for the movie dances. Martino is more than up to both tasks here.)

In a production as challenging as Spider Woman, casting is of utmost importance, and here again DeGruccio has lucked out in spades.

Terra C. Macleod has starred on Broadway as Velma in Chicago, and were Kiss Of The Spider Woman still running there, she could just as easily be playing Aurora on the Great White Way right now. The scene-stealing star of last season’s The Pajama Game (and saluted by StageSceneLA for her Best Performance By A Featured Actress In A Musical) gives Broadway original Chita Rivera a run for her money in her stellar performance here. Bewigged and bedecked all in black, Macleod sings and dances in true movie star mode, with sizzling, sultry moves and mile-high kicks.

In Molina, Chad Borden has found the proverbial “role he was born to play,” making the effeminate self-described coward sympathetic from scene one, his performance (and Molina the man) growing steadily stronger as coward becomes hero.  Borden has never been anything less than excellent in a variety of roles, many if not most of them in the light comedy vein.  Here he proves himself an actor of power, and one heck of a singer/dancer.

Playing against type, perennial boy-next-door Daniel Tatar transforms himself here into the rough, tough-talking political activist Valentin. Tatar, like Borden, is an actor first and foremost, but one who happens to be able to sing in a voice that any musical theater performer could wish for.  Tatar also has the acting chops to make us believe in Valentin the revolutionary, Valentin the homophobe, and Valentin transformed by the power of Molina’s devotion.

Ed F. Martin’s previous stage personae (among them Charlie Brown in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown and Norman in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests) might seem to make him an unlikely choice to play the vicious prison warden, but seeing such evil come from someone so seemingly harmless makes the evil twice as scary. Eileen Barnett shines as Molina’s mother, and her singing/acting performance of “You Could Never Shame Me” to her beloved gay son is powerful indeed.  Zarah Mahler (Great Expectations The Musical) is loveliness personified (in voice, looks, and manner) as Marta, Valentin’s upper class girlfriend.

As the prisoners, the impeccable ensemble (Dance Captain and Martino mainstay Shell Bauman, Salvatore Vassallo, Hector Guerrero, Mike A. Motroni, Jeffrey Parsons, and Oskar Rodriguez) look and sound every bit the dirty, sweaty, horny, demoralized prisoners, and then, poof, they are transformed as if by Hollywood magic into Aurora’s back-up dancers, executing Martino’s moves to perfection.  Jailers Alex Alvarez and Che Rodriguez do fine work in their smaller roles.

DeGruccio/Martino touches are everywhere.  Watch how Molina lip-syncs to Aurora’s songs and mimics her every move.  Gasp as a prison execution has Oskar Rodriguez hanging upside down from his legs high above the stage after being shot.  Trip to the drug-induced fantasy world of “Morphene Tango” and marvel at the ingenuity of jail cell bars suddenly pulled free to serve as dance canes for one of Spider Woman’s big production numbers.

Michael (Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story) Paternostro’s musical direction is once again stellar, and conducted by keyboardist Steven Ladd Jones, the six-person orchestra manages to sound three times that size.

Almost as much stars of the production as the cast, director, choreographer, and musical director, are Spider Woman’s design team, most notably master set designer Tom Buderwitz and lighting designer extraordinaire Steven Young, working as partners in stage magic.  Buderwitz’s set has cramped jail cells right and left, with Molina and Valentin’s much larger cell sliding out from behind upstage panels to fill the space between, then sliding back to allow room for the Hollywood dance sequences. Spotlights on the floor surrounding Molina and Valentine’s cell shine up to mimic iron bars, and lights from behind the upstage, upstairs balcony illuminate Aurora in silhouette.  Young’s award-worthy lighting moves from prison gloom to Hollywood glitter in mere seconds.  Costume designer Anne Kennedy has created one glamorous slinky number after another for Aurora, and just the right scruff for the prisoners. (Arlington, VA’s Signature Theatre provided Kennedy’s costumes.) Drew Dalzell and Rebecca Kessin’s sound design mixes orchestra and voices to perfection, and sends out chilling screams from unseen torture chambers.

Even with current L.A. theater listings already offering audiences a plethora of choices, with even more coming in one of the busiest and most exciting Fall seasons ever, this once-in-a-dozen-years production of Kiss Of The Spider Woman—The Musical ought to top anyone’s list of must-sees. People will be talking, and raving about this Kiss for months to come.

NOTE:  10-31-88
The role of Aurora is now being played by the sensational Natalie Nucci in a performance every bit as fine as her predecessor’s.  Nucci brings heat, sensuality, and a silken voice to the role, and exhibits the dance pizzazz that made her recent performance in Bye Bye Birdie of the year’s best. Daniel Tatar and Chad Borden are better than ever as Valentin and Molina.  It’ll be hard for another intimate theater musical to top Spider Woman this year.

Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
September 26, 2008
Photos: Michael Lamont

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