Review: ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’

The original "Kiss" had a long and tortuous path to Broadway after a flawed workshop production, and much of the problem was adapting the magic realism of Puig's novel and the Babenco film to the rigors of musical theater.

The original “Kiss” had a long and tortuous path to Broadway after a flawed workshop production, and much of the problem was adapting the magic realism of Puig’s novel and the Babenco film to the rigors of musical theater. Finding the right tone for a piece set in an Argentine prison about a gay window dresser and his cinematic fantasy life is clearly a challenge.

One of the brighter lights of recent Broadway seasons, this musical based on the 1975 Manuel Puig novel and 1985 Hector Babenco film has dimmed considerably after a lengthy national tour. Chita Rivera reprises her Tony-winning performance with verve, and Juan Chorian and Dorian Harewood give solid portrayals; however, the slim story, weak music and lyrics and sagging direction undermine the production. The result is an uneasy compromise that heightens the Spider Woman character (Rivera) at the expense of some of the deeper political and mythological dimensions of the story. While the musical implies the political chaos swirling outside the prison walls, it is never explored to any significant degree.

The characters of Molina (Chioran) and Valentin (Harewood) also are oddly shortchanged, with both their psychological pain and their personal and political conflicts supplanted by songs that never go very deep. Even the prison itself in this touring production feels more like a Hollywood set for Alcatraz than a torture house of the Argentine generals.

Composer/lyricist team John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,””Zorba”), along with book writer Terrence McNally, never find a fit with the Latin flavor of the material, nor with the particular mix of ideology and fantasy that has played such an important role in recent South American politics and literature.

The music is spiced with zesty orchestrations by Michael Gibson, but is largely unoriginal and bland save for the quieter ballads, “You Could Never Shame Me” and “I Do Miracles.” Dance sequences are lively, but with the exception of the powerful “Gimme Love,” choreographers Vincent Paterson and Rob Marshall rely mostly on Broadway cliches.

Rivera is stalwart as the Spider Woman, posing and strutting as Molina’s alter ego and spirit guide. She has little chance to develop the character, however, except for a few brief scenes that she handles with panache. Chioran is often flat as the hairdresser Molina, missing much of the important edge of the role. He does, however, deliver in the crucial emotional moments at the end of the evening.

Harewood (“Roots,””The Jesse Owens Story”) is solid as the political prisoner Valentin, but, like the other performers, is not given much to work with. Lauren Goler-Kosarian does a fine turn as Marta, Valentin’s girlfriend, and displays impressive vocal talents. Merle Louise also gives a moving performance as Molina’s mother, especially in her memorable rendition of “You Could Never Shame Me.”

Part of the problem with this production is the direction by Hal Prince, which seems to have sagged considerably from the original, with the performers struggling to keep the show’s energy alive. Set design by Jerome Sirlin and costumes by Florence Klotz are good; the production as a whole has a dated and formulaic feel.

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Orange County Performing Arts Center; 3,000 seats; $49.50 top

Production

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

Creative

Choreography, Vincent Paterson; additional choreography, Rob Marshall; set design, Jerome Sirlin; costume design , Florence Klotz; lighting design, Howell Binkley; sound design, Martin Levan; musical director, Rob Bowman. Opened, reviewed Dec. 26, 1995. Runs through Jan. 7, 1996. (Runs Jan. 10-14 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and March 14-April 21 at the Ahmanson Theatre.) Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Cast

Cast: Chita Rivera (Spider Woman/Aurora), Juan Chioran (Molina), Dorian Harewood (Valentin), Merle Louise (Molina's Mother), Lauren Goler-Kosarian (Marta), Michael McCormick (Warden), Wade Williams (Esteban), Robert Jensen (Marcos), Richard Amaro (Prisoner), Lloyd Culbreath (Prisoner), Richard Montoya (Prisoner), Sergio Trujillo (Prisoner), Todd Hunter (Window Dresser/Prisoner), Pete Herber (Prisoner), Joshua Finkel (Prisoner), Gary Schwartz (Prisoner Fuentes), Gary Moss (Gabriel/Prisoner).
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