What tangled webs we weave trying to endure torture, jail Theater review: Relationships are interwoven in complex and grand ways in "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

November 10, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Kiss of the Spider Woman" is, by its very title, about accepting the kiss of death. But the core of the story is about two extremely different men who learn to accept and eventually respect each other.

Cellmates in a Latin American prison, they have an intricate and layered relationship, and it's depicted in a magnificently intricate and layered musical, whose national touring production at the Mechanic Theatre is as grand as the Broadway original.

One key to the way in which the show is constructed lies in its most beautiful song, "Dear One" -- the gem of John Kander and Fred Ebb's lush score. The number begins as a solo by the mother of Molina, a homosexual window dresser imprisoned on a morals conviction. Soon it becomes a duet, sung with the girlfriend of Molina's cellmate, a political prisoner named Valentin. Then it expands into a trio, and finally a quartet, as the cellmates' voices join those of the two women they hold most dear.

Subtly, this song, which comes early in the show, hints at the connection between the disparate cellmates, demonstrating their capacity for love and loyalty, despite their vastly different mindsets.

But much of this musical -- with a book by Terrence McNally, direction by Harold Prince, and choreography by Vincent Paterson and Rob Marshall -- is anything but subtle. That's because, like the Manuel Puig novel on which it is based, the show interweaves the dire story of the prisoners with lavish scenes from the movie musicals starring a screen goddess named Aurora. As her most ardent fan, Molina summons up Aurora's movies to escape the squalor of his surroundings.

And there is no question that the production benefits greatly from having a legendary stage star portray the legendary screen star. Re-creating her Tony Award-winning performance, Chita Rivera brings elegance, style and high-kicking pizazz to Aurora. She also brings a seductive warmth to Aurora's depiction of the glamorous but deadly Spider Woman -- a grim reaper character who is the only one of Aurora's roles Molina dislikes.

Though the Spider Woman ensnares many victims in the torture-inflicting prison, she isn't the only one of Aurora's characters to comment on the rest of the action. In a manner similar to the one he pioneered in another Kander and Ebb musical, "Cabaret," director Prince and the show's creators use Aurora's production numbers to chart the relationship between Molina and Valentin.

Even seemingly silly numbers such as "Gimme Love" or "Good Times" reflect Molina's increased involvement with Valentin, a Marxist whom he will come to defend with his heart and, finally, his soul.

As Valentin, Dorian Harewood -- who joined the company in July -- displays such strong vocal ability, it's surprising his credits don't include a Broadway musical. Juan Chioran, whose Molina has deepened since the show's stop in Washington last season, combines a haunting romantic quality with a sweet generosity of spirit.

Their story is played out on Jerome Sirlin's large, projection-laden sets.

The Mechanic has blessed Baltimore audiences with a chance to see back-to-back productions of the two top-winning 1993 Tony Award shows, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Angels in America" (which opens Nov. 21). Both are distinguished not only by artistic achievement, but by content more serious than usual for Broadway. No devoted theatergoer should miss either one.

'Kiss of the Spider Woman'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturdays and Sundays. Through Nov. 19

Tickets: $35-$57.50

Call: (410)

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