Kiss of the Spider Woman

Hills Musical Company. Stirling Community Theatre. 28 Apr 2012

You don’t want to be kissed by the spider woman, but you do want to see the Hills’ Kiss of the Spider Woman, my oath.  While I am quite familiar with the various incarnations of the story, a quick poll indicated that the musical is virtually unknown.  Amazingly, in Jo Litson’s article in the Weekend Australian Review of 28-29 April about musicals that have been spun out of films, Spider Woman is not even mentioned.

In the beginning was the novel by Argentina’s Manuel Puig - published in 1976.  He adapted the story to the stage in 1983 and two years later there was a film.  William Hurt won the Oscar for his Molina and the film garnered nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Film.  Jimmy Zoole Presents’ production of the play in 1989 in Adelaide was directed by Peter Goers with your reviewer in the role of Molina.  The musical - music/lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret and Chicago) and book by Terrence McNally (four times Tony Award winner) – was developed in New York but got the kiss of death from a New York Times reviewer.  The musical we now see was first produced in Toronto in 1992.  The Canadian production moved to Broadway the following year where it won Tonys for Best Costume, Best Score, Best Book and Best Musical, and the three lead actors all won Tonys. 

With personal baggage and after nearly two decades of listening to the CD but never actually seeing a production, you might imagine my expectations were sky high.  They were, but I was not disappointed.  This is one of the most sumptuous, intelligent and emotion-evoking theatrical productions I have seen.

The action takes place in a degrading prison cell during Argentina’s Dirty War of state terrorism 1976-83.  Molina is a flamboyant homosexual who shares his cell with the activist Valentin.  There is an immediate dichotomy of the gay aesthete living in a dream world of escape from politics, and the committed Marxist willing to risk his life for the cause.  Molina recounts romantic movies with leading ladies in the finest clothes – the dark side of his vivid imagination is the spider woman whose kiss would be your last.  The prisoners make a ready-made chorus and the score is full of catchy Latin beats rendering it unforgettable.  My eyes lit with delight at Ole Wiebkin’s detailed set of the prison cell and spider’s lair which preluded the intense feelings I knew I was going to have.  

In a highly talented cast, Eden Plaisted remained outstanding as the hapless Valentin.  He mastered the long distance stare and intensity of the committed fanatic, and matched his authentic appearance with a powerful and commanding singing voice.  His lead in “The Day After That” – a call to the poor to join the revolution – was thrilling and poignant, and one of many reminders of how fortunate we are living in a free country.  Bravo!

Juxtaposed against the theme of political struggle, the heart of the narrative is love, personified by Molina.  Hew Wagner plays the homosexual with grace, poise, dignity and a soothing tenor.  His Molina extended compassion and sympathy to the suffering Valentin which led to the development of an intimate bond culminating in an exchange of favours leading to the climax.  Wagner made him both fragile and sturdy without pathos.  Bravo!

The spider woman completes the triumvirate.  Melanie Smith made this role a somewhat playful character imputing death with desire and seduction.  Smith’s flamboyant dance and compelling voice, with her pantomime of the heroine Aurora completed the melodrama of Molina’s imagination.  Bravo! 

Laura Villani (Rocconi) was sweet and innocent and sang lovingly as Molina’s mother, bestowing her blessings and loving her son unconditionally.  I cannot remember seeing such a dedicated and earnest ensemble.  Siau-Suan Liau and Matthew Redmond as the principal prison guards were genuinely threatening.  The rest of the men appeared mainly as desperate prisoners singing with great masculinity about their wives outside the wall, and as ensemble dancers.  Their “Morphine Tango” number gave them an opportunity for comic relief.  Another scene of an impossibly crowded jail created by hand-held jail bar screens was a theatrical highlight of invention.   

Max Rayner’s direction and choreography by Rayner and Linda Lawson was tight, paced and always interesting.  Peter Howie’s lighting design focused the action and was mood-altering, especially in “Morphine Tango.”  The costumes were superb – everything from prison rags and uniforms, to the spider woman’s shiny outfits and spider silk capes, and Molina’s mourning suit.  Brent Saunders and his orchestra played well the lively and complex score.

I was let down a bit by the drawn-out epilogue of numerous short and unnecessary scenes apparently to reinforce Molina’s commitment - I found them an inferior solution compared to what’s in both the movie and the play and it reduced the energy level and improperly conveyed Molina’s sacrifice.

Personally, I found the musical confronting, capturing me into a world of political incarceration and torture, periodically transcending into Molina’s melodramatic movie fantasies and death fears made manifest by the production’s rich design elements, strong voices and dance.  Double Bravo!     

Do not miss the opportunity to see a fantastic production of a rarely performed but superb musical. 

David Grybowski

When: 27 Apr to 12 May
Where: Stirling Theatre