'Kiss of Spider Woman' thrives on songs and story

March 23, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

"Kiss of the Spider Woman" -- Manuel Puig's novel about two cellmates in a Latin American prison -- might seem like a dense, peculiar web of a subject for a musical. At least it might if it were a musical by anyone else.

But as is evident from the dark, stunning production at Washington's National Theatre, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is a case of the right people coming together in an unlikely place.

Composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb and director Harold Prince have mastered equally challenging fare before -- most similarly in "Cabaret." In this latest collaboration Kander and Ebb have rejoined forces with playwright Terrence McNally, who adapted Puig's novel. The result is a distinctly unusual but captivating musical.

Their work is so skillful that, together with a physical production every bit as splendid as its Broadway counterpart, it more than compensates for less-than-compelling performances by the lead actors.

The show's genius lies not only in Kander and Ebb's lush and varied score but also in the overall structure, which is comparable to "Cabaret." That show allowed musical numbers to be presented in the natural setting of a cabaret while also commenting on the action.

In "Spider Woman," an imprisoned gay window dresser named Molina (Juan Chioran) relies on his recollections of B-movies to provide a fantasized escape from his surroundings. These movies also provide a context for the show's production numbers, which showcase Molina's favorite movie star, Aurora, played by Chita Rivera (reprising the role that won her a 1993 Tony Award).

The commentary functions via movie scenes that echo the musical's plot, particularly after the warden (Mark Zimmerman) tries to entice Molina to inform against his cellmate, a straight Marxist revolutionary named Valentin (John Dossett), with whom Molina falls in love.

For example, the first act finale is from a movie set in the tropics, in which Rivera appears as a caged songbird who refuses to betray her lover. Later we see her play a grand Russian countess who gives her life for the student rebel she loves.

As these synopses suggest, Molina's pet movies -- or at least his versions of them -- are pure corn, and Rivera's re-enactments are appropriately campy and touching at the same time.

Rivera's dancing is also dazzling, easily the equal of that of the young men who accompany her. Yet her acting lacks a degree of compassion for her adoring fan. This lack is especially evident when she portrays the musical's title character -- a symbol of death from the only one of Aurora's movies Molina dislikes.

Part of the problem may lie with Chioran's depiction of Molina. A haunted-looking actor, he fails to convey the inherent warmth that eventually reaches Dossett's recalcitrant Valentin. In turn, Dossett's Valentin isn't as initially obdurate as the text requires. He does seem to have a lovely singing voice, though it sounded strained on opening night.

These difficulties are counteracted, however, by "Spider Woman's" magnificent score and by a script that defies its unconventional trappings and succeeds in touching universal chords of love, death and understanding.

'SPIDER WOMAN'

Where: National Theatre in Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays- Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays; through April 9

Tickets: $30-$60

Call: (202) 628-6161

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