BWW Review: KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN: The Power of Love

BWW Review: KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN: The Power of Love

Kiss of The Spider Woman

Book by Terrence McNally, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Based on the novel by Manuel Puig, Originally directed by Harold Prince; Directed & Choreographed by Rachel Bertone; Music Director, Dan Rodriguez; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Marian Bertone; Lighting Design, Franklin Meissner, Jr.; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will; Projection Design, Johnathan Carr; Props Artisan, Cesara Walters; Fight Choreographer, J.T. Turner; Dramaturg, Emily White; Production Stage Manager, L. Arkansas Light; Assistant Stage Manager, Nerys Powell; Assistant Director, Rebecca Snyder; Assistant to the Choreographer, Hannnah McEachern

CAST: Eddy Cavazos, Taavon Gamble, Lisa Yuen, Luis Negron, Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda, Katrina Zofia, Diego Klock-Pérez, Davron S. Monroe, Ricardo Holguin, Arthur Cuadros, Bernie Baldassaro, Arthur Gomez, Felton Sparks, Lance-Patrick Sutherland

Performances through October 7 at Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com

Kiss of The Spider Woman was brought to Broadway in 1993 by a team of all-stars after opening first in Toronto and London. Directed by Harold Prince, with book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander, and lyrics by Fred Ebb, it was an established hit when it arrived on the Great White Way. The icing on the cake was having Broadway legend Chita Rivera as the Spider Woman/Aurora, reuniting her with the creative trio responsible for her Tony Award-winning turn in The Rink. Although it is based on the novel by Manuel Puig, crafted from the author's own experience in prison in Argentina, in the musical, politics take a backseat to the love story and the triumph of the human spirit.

Lyric Stage Company opens its 44th season with the Tony Award-winning (seven, including Best Musical) Kiss of The Spider Woman, directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone, with music direction by Dan Rodriguez, who gets pizazz and a far bigger sound than anyone would expect from a five-piece orchestra. The show is almost entirely sung-through, and the Kander and Ebb score is outstanding, given its due by a cadre of vocalists who make each song better than the last. The supporting players, in particular Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda (Molina's Mother), Katrina Sofia (Marta), and Ricardo Holguin (Gabriel), make their characters come alive, even with minimal stage time, with the quality of their singing. Arguably one of the most beautiful musical numbers is "Dear One" in the first act, with the two women harmonizing to great effect.

Set primarily in a prison in Argentina, KTSW is the story of Molina (Eddy Cavazos), a gay window dresser incarcerated for corrupting a minor, and his cellmate Valentin (Taavon Gamble), a young Marxist revolutionary. Molina survives his ordeal by living in a fantasy world of movies, mostly starring his idol Aurora (Lisa Yuen), and tries to engage Valentin, who wants none of it. The prison is a harsh world, overseen by an evil and duplicitous Warden (Luis Negron, an unwavering villain), who routinely employs torture, poisoning, and verbal and physical abuse by sadistic guards (Davron S. Monroe, Diego Klock-Pérez) who are only too happy to wield their truncheons against the prisoners. After Valentin is subjected to torture, Molina tends to him, somewhat softening the former's hard stance. Eventually, Valentin comes to appreciate Molina's stories from the movies and they form a caring bond as their mutual humanity takes over. When Molina falls in love with Valentin, the Warden presents him with a Hobson's Choice: turn informant and get released early to be with his ailing mother, or suffer the consequences.

Making his Lyric Stage debut, Cavazos is the heart and soul of the show, totally inhabiting his character in a proud and sympathetic manner. His flamboyance never crosses over into caricature, and he makes Molina likable, despite his annoying habits. Cavazos' terrific voice makes him the complete package and I hope that this first appearance at the Lyric will be the start of a long-term relationship. Gamble is also making his Lyric Stage debut and, after a busy summer of being a chorus boy, it is nice to see him stepping front and center in a meaty role. Valentin's dark fierceness stands out in contrast to Molina's airy demeanor, and Gamble conveys his character's anger with taut muscles and clipped speech. When called for, he can deliver a song sweetly, but he displays the necessary intensity for Valentin's anthem of hope and defiance ("The Day After That").

The role of Aurora presents a couple of challenges for an actor to tackle. In the first place, the character is a fantasy conjured up by Molina, one made up of a combination of imagination and celluloid. By definition, she is at once larger than life, while also one-dimensional, but her purpose is to be both a distraction and a saving grace. Perhaps the greater challenge is that it is impossible to erase the image of the iconic Rivera, so one must find a way to mold Aurora in her own image. Bertone and her mother, costume designer Marian Bertone, position Yuen in the spotlight with sparkly outfits and surround her with a trio of Aurora's Men (Bernie Baldassaro, Arthur Cuadros, Lance-Patrick Strickland) for her production numbers. Yuen sings ups a storm, but she gets lost in the shuffle while the trio of dancers outshine her. The Spider Woman needs to be electrifying and attention-grabbing, yet I found myself captivated by her boys' (especially Baldassaro's) terpsichorean talents.

The world of the play is evoked by a combination of stark scenic design (Janie E. Howland), lighting (Franklin Meissner, Jr.), sound (Andrew Duncan Will), and projections (Johnathan Carr). Fight choreographer J.T. Turner adds authenticity to the scenes of beating the prisoners. Rather than being handicapped by the small stage, Bertone makes use of a second tier/balcony, as well as the entry ramps that flank the stage. Despite most of the action taking place in the confines of the cell, her blocking keeps things interesting, and her eclectic choreography is well-suited to the musical styles of the score.

Twenty-five years after its Broadway debut, Kiss of The Spider Woman remains a powerful show, making statements about authoritarian politics, homosexuality, friendship, loyalty, and love. Bertone has interpreted the end of the story somewhat differently than it has been played in earlier renditions, but she makes a case for her vision in a program note. It feels like a misstep to me, although it is done well and with commitment. One thing we can agree on, regardless of the specific details of the ending, is that love is love is love is love. (Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Photo credit: Lyric Stage Company (Eddy Cavazos, Lisa Yuen, Taavon Gamble)

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