Kander and Ebb’s Kiss Of The Spider Woman is back in a rarer-than-rare revival at Santa Ana’s Theatre Out, news that would be a good deal more exciting were its leading lady a better fit for the title role.
You’d think that Spider Woman would be more frequently revived, however despite its over 900 performances on Broadway and 7 Tony wins including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score (inspiring not one but two different Broadway Cast Recordings), the 1993 smash has had only one major Los Angeles production since its 1996 National Tour played the Ahmanson.
Admittedly, a musical centering on a gay South American department store window dresser (imprisoned as a “sexual offender arrested for corrupting a minor … male”) locked up with an accused terrorist cellmate does sound like rather a hard sell.
Broadway legends John Kander and Fred Ebb’s decision to adapt Hector Babenco’s 1985 movie version of Manuel Puig’s novel for the Broadway stage was likely inspired by its Dolores Del Rio-like title character, the memory of whose glamorous film roles gives Molina the hope and strength to go on living.
In Terrence McNally’s book, the one-named “Aurora” is transformed from dramatic film goddess to 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.
Kiss Of The Spider Woman’s songs represent some of Kander and Ebb’s finest work, both in their original movie context and as commentaries on Molina and Valentin’s imprisonment.
“You’ve got to learn how not to be where you are,” sings Aurora in “Where You Are,” and Molina takes to heart its creed that “If you find that you land in jail, a little fantasy will not fail.”
“I Do Miracles” follows a torture sequence which leaves Valentin bruised, bloody, and in need of a miracle, one which Aurora provides: “Though the lash 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 terrified, 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 a constant in this prison of death and despair.
Kiss Of The Spider Woman works on many levels, as a powerful commentary on the use of torture as a means of getting information from political prisoners, as a love story, albeit an unexpected one, between two very different men, and as a story of change, one in which a macho Marxist revolutionary learns to see a “ridiculous faggot window dresser” with different eyes.
Additional standouts among Kiss Of The Spider Woman’s memorable songs are the perky “Dressing Them Up,” the dramatic “Over The Wall,” and the inspiring “The Day After That,” and whenever it is Ron Holsey’s Valentin who is soloing, the voice is as gorgeous as any you’ll hear on a Broadway stage.
Nicki Peek’s pipes aren’t nearly so strong, particularly when overpowered by too-amped instumentals, but even if they were, it is the miscasting of Spider Woman’s title role that proves this revival’s biggest misstep. Peek gives the part her all, and as in previous Theatre Out productions, she proves herself a more than competent dancer. Still, in the same way that Rosie O’Donnell wouldn’t be right for a Jennifer Lopez role, Peek is all wrong for Aurora.
Michael Paul does much better as Molina, a self-described coward willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for love, and has some powerful, affecting moments under David C. Carnevale’s direction, but a younger performer would be a better fit for the 30something window dresser.
As for Holsey, though the Daytime Emmy-nominated TV writer’s acting chops, stunning looks, and gym-toned muscles make him a memorable Molina, the operatically voiced leading man plays Valentin’s impossible love with the production’s sole Spanish accent, a curious choice since everyone else plays his or her role sin acento español.
Supporting performers do well in smaller parts, Sherry Domerego as Molina’s mother singing a lovely “You Could Never Shame Me,” a fine-voiced Jessica Hayes as Valentin’s upper class girlfriend Marta, Glenn Freeze as a vicious prison warden, and Kevin Manalang as a sadistic guard.
Dominique Collins, Diego Castro, Joaquin Nunez, and Dustin Thompson look more like actual prisoners than the chorus-boy buff inmates of Spider Woman’s 2008 L.A. revival, sing mightily, and dance quite nicely indeed to Lindsay Martin’s choreography, the production’s brightest star.
Carnevale’s costumes are first-rate, whether prison garb or glamorous gowns or everyday street wear. On the oher hand, scenic designer Matt MacCready’s wood-paneled set looks more like a windowless fleabag motel room than the dank, terrifying cell that would enhance the musical’s darker tones as would a darker, moodier lighting design than Joy Chessmar-Bice’s.
Musical director Stephen Hulsey does his accustomed fine work in getting the vocal best from his cast. Robert Ramirez (keyboard) and Carlo Virtucio (drums and percussion) perform John Kander’s melodies to perfection, but since cast members sing unmiked, the musicians’ volume needs to be turned down for a better sound mix.
Kiss Of The Spider Woman is produced by Carnevale and Joey Baital. EB Bohks is stage manager and Luis Ceja and Sherri Hull are assistant stage managers. Additional program credits go to MacCready and Sherri Hull (scenic painters) and Mary Chessmar-Bice (lighting assistant), among others.
Given how rarely Kiss Of The Spider Woman gets staged, I wish I could rate the latest Theatre Out revival as highly as the equally challenging but far more successful Cabaret and The Wild Party were several years back.
Still, even this imperfect Spider Woman merits a look-see for those willing to excuse its flaws. After all, who knows when if ever Aurora will be back among us to kiss again?
Theatre Out, 402 W. 4th Street, Santa Ana.
May 23, 2015