Signature Theater launches its tribute to musical composing team John Kander and Fred Ebb with a most satisfying revival of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" that bodes well for the four-month festival -- which will continue with "The Happy Time" and "The Visit."

Signature Theater launches its tribute to musical composing team John Kander and Fred Ebb with a most satisfying revival of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” that bodes well for the four-month festival — which will continue with “The Happy Time” and “The Visit.” Propelled by shrewd performances, the production pays full respect to the tuner’s dark theme and its easily overplayed fantasy moments.

Granted, “Kiss” is not the strongest volume in the K&E collection. Its score pales next to the duo’s more celebrated collaborations like “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” while overall identity issues have been raised about the story’s many leaps between brutal repression and escapist flights of fancy.

Yet Signature a.d. Eric Schaeffer has found a winning formula in his sincere treatment of the material, allowing the gritty tale to unfold with dramatic impact. Within Adam Koch’s forbidding three-story prison set, maximum tension swirls around the two miserable inhabitants of a single gloomy cell, Molina (Hunter Foster) and Valentin (Will Chase), while a moveable catwalk and spiral staircase make inviting platforms to showcase the beguiling Aurora (Natascia Diaz). It’s the most effective use yet of Signature’s principal black box theater, which debuted last year.

Foster is mesmerizing as the gay window dresser thrown into the Argentinean prison on a morals charge. With help from a constantly caressed red scarf, a vivid contrast to the dreary confines, the character flaunts his sexuality as he masks his pain with film world fantasies. His gradual transition to a doomed heroic figure, interspersed with a variety of expertly sung melodies, is extremely effective.

Chase is equally satisfying as the macho revolutionary cellmate who slowly warms to Molina and his fantasies. Chase’s terrific tenor voice provides many of the show’s musical highlights, more than compensating for the supporting role’s limitations. The two are in sync musically, especially in the early song, “Dressing Them Up,” and the bigger number, “Dear One.”

Diaz is a solidly seductive Aurora who strengthens in the role as the evening progresses. It’s a carefully measured, vocally powerful performance that offers numerous highlights, particularly the act one closer, “Gimme Love,” and the humorous “Russian Movie” that begins act two.

Staging opportunities are maximized throughout, thanks in part to Karma Camp’s spirited choreography. Examples include “Where You Are,” Aurora’s inviting dance number with the prisoners, and “Morphine Tango,” where orderlies in lighted head gear illuminate a darkened stage. More difficult to watch, but equally effective, are the moments of brutal torture that bring the audience back to reality.

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Signature Max Theater, Arlington, Va.; 299 seats; $69 top

Production

A Signature Theater presentation of a musical in two acts with book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, based on the novel by Manuel Puig. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Karma Camp.

Creative

Set, Adam Koch; costumes, Anne Kennedy; lighting, Chris Lee; sound, Matt Rowe. Opened, reviewed, March 16, 2008. Runs through April 20. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Molina - Hunter Foster Valentin - Will Chase Aurora, Spider Woman - Natascia Diaz Warden - Steven Cupo Esteban - Christopher Bloch Marcos - Andy Brownstein Marta - Erin Driscoll Molina's Mother - Channez McQuay
With: James Gardiner, Danny Binstock, Kurt Boehm, Matt Conner, L.C. Harden Jr., Stephen Gregory Smith.

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