The noblest intentions in the world haven’t made a satisfying musical out of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which arrives in London beset by creative indecision, kitsch and performances that don’t yet deliver the emotional goods.
Molina Brent Carver extensively rejigged since its much-ballyhooed SUNY Purchase workshop in June 1990, the show has some way to go if it’s to succeed on Broadway, where a provisional booking has been made for the Broadhurst in March.
At present, this musical version of Manuel Puig’s novel is so many shows at once that it has absolutely no identity. Various moments suggest a politically charged chamber piece, focusing on the shifting yet intimate rapport between two Latin American cellmates — gay window-dresser Molina (Brent Carver) and dour Marxist Valentin (Anthony Crivello) — as they fight for survival in an atmosphere of torture and fear.
Las Vegas holds sway in Molina’s elaborate fantasies about his beloved film star Aurora (Chita Rivera). But also the show yearns to jettison its political shackles in order to tell a bold gay love story.
The task is difficult and it hasn’t come off, not least because director Harold Prince is so busy attending to all three strands that he’s found no way to make a coherent whole.
Not until the last 20 minutes or so, when the freed Molina re-enters the real world, does the musical sustain the narrative urgency needed from the outset.
Until then, it proceeds in fits and starts as librettist Terrence McNally, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb pay homage to politics (several torture scenes made first-nighters wince) even as their real interests lie elsewhere.
Thus the show’s most earnest numbers are also its most suspect — a dreary revolutionary anthem, “The Day After That,” as dishonest a part of this show as the exactly analogous “Bui Doi” was of “Miss Saigon,” or the shamelessly sentimental “You Could Never Shame Me” for Molina’s mother (Merle Louise), a character so generic she doesn’t even have a name.
Far better are the songs that find Kander and Ebb on the jaunty ground they know well, whether Molina is describing his work in “Dressing Them Up,” or Aurora is enacting a particularly over-the-top film role in the hilarious (and beautifully staged) second-act opener, “Russian Movie.”
What’s missing are precisely those showstoppers of self-revelation one remembers from the same team’s “Cabaret” or “The Rink”; only the title song, scintillatingly sung by Rivera, her body flooded with designer Jerome Sirlin’s projected web, comes close.
An incandescent trio of leads might paper over the cracks, but the present team is merely accomplished rather than inspired.
The two men are hampered by schematic material that makes Valentin the straight man in more ways than one. Crivello has a strong voice, but the character remains an uptight cliche who by definition exists to give Molina all the best lines. Carver dutifully navigates his marathon assignment, but he doesn’t have the vocal authority or sly grace that distinguished William Hurt’s Oscar-winning turn in the 1985 film.
As for Rivera, it’s wonderful to see a Broadway legend back in form in a leading role, unflatteringly wigged and costumed though she is. But the production could be kinder to her, starting with choreography to improve upon Rob Marshall’s gaudy routines.
This show’s creators need to take their courage further so that they, no less than their central characters, learn to trust their hearts. A classic case of aesthetic schizophrenia is on view here– for which a cure, one hopes, still awaits.