Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky promised a national tour of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" that was an exact replica of the original Broadway production. It's even better.

Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky promised a national tour of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” that was an exact replica of the original Broadway production. It’s even better.

All the members of the original production team have reprised their work for this first-class tour, launched at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. While the show looks the same as it did on Broadway, the cast — headed once again by Chita Rivera — conveys greater poignancy to the story of an unlikely friendship between a gay window dresser and a macho revolutionary who share a cell in a South American prison.

What director Harold Prince, author Terrence McNally, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb have done is to present the 1990s equivalent of “Cabaret,” blending the songwriters’ penchant for showbiz song-and-dance with Prince’s drive for intelligence, which makes even frivolous moments relevant.

Though Rivera is onstage less than half the time, she is ever-present, haunting the mind of Molina, the gay prisoner who uses his memories of Aurora’s B-movie musicals to relieve the pain of his surroundings. Rivera gives the show the star presence it needs for campy sendups of old musicals. You’d never know she’s in her 60s the way she struts and twirls across the stage in the energetic numbers staged by Rob Marshall. Her songs elaborate on the developing friendship between Molina and Valentin, or foreshadow the dangers that lie ahead.

Juan Chioran as Molina and John Dossett as Valentin, both strong, attractive performers, are well balanced. Though Dossett’s bullying tone is a bit overdone at the beginning, the pair make us care for them. Chioran is attractively fey, flitting about the cell with gentle flourishes to his movements, girlishly crossing his legs or playing with a scarf or, more important, imitating Aurora’s actions as Rivera brings to life the movies in Molina’s mind. Dossett initially grunts his disgust at Molina, but a surprising tenderness eventually surfaces.

All this happens within the confines of the prison cell that Jerome Sirlin has designed with a claustrophobic feel, accentuated by Mark Zimmerman’s commanding performance as the cruel prison warden. At times, bars are everywhere , and then they disappear to reveal some wild Hollywood set represented by one of Sirlin’s impressive projections. Or he takes us outside the prison walls to meet Molina’s mother (a tender Rita Gardner) and Valentin’s girlfriend, Marta (lovingly played by Juliet Lambert).

Howell Binkley’s lighting gives the prison sequences a harsh and imposing tone, while the musical numbers take on a lighter, more colorful air. Florence Klotz’s costumes run a gamut from dirty prison garb to the chicken-feather costume that Rivera wears during the first act finale, “Gimme Love.”

This is a musical that grows on you with repeated viewings. Theatergoers longing for something intelligent and moving and with just enough razzle-dazzle should eagerly await a visit from this “Spider Woman.”

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Festival Hall, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Tampa, Fla.; 2,500 seats; $47.50 top

Production

A Livent (U.S.) Inc. presentation of a musical in two acts with book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, based on the novel by Manuel Puig. Directed by Harold Prince.

Creative

Choreographed by Vincent Paterson, additional choreography by Rob Marshall. Musical director, Rob Bowman. Set, projections, Jerome Sirlin; lighting, Howell Binkley; costumes, Florence Klotz; sound, Martin Levan; production stage manager, Frank Marino. Opened, reviewed Nov. 1, 1994. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Molina - Juan Chioran
Warden - Mark Zimmerman
Valentin - John Dossett
Esteban - Wade Williams
Marcos - Robert Jensen
Spider Woman/Aurora - Chita Rivera
Molina's Mother - Rita Gardner
Marta - Juliet Lambert
With: Lloyd Culbreath, Sergio Trujillo, Gary Moss, Joshua Finkel, Gary Schwartz, John Capes, David Boyd, Julio Agustin, Richard Montoya.

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