Kiss of the Spider Woman Review by Adam Rafferty

 ****stars

For its 2019 finale, the MTC have wrapped up a Christmas gift for Melbourne’s music theatre aficionados, the rarely produced Kiss of the Spider Woman. Composed by Broadway royalty, John Kander and Fred Ebb, (creators of Cabaret and Chicago) and written by the brilliant Terrence McNally (author of numerous stage plays including Master Class and the recently seen Ragtime), the show took out a swathe of prizes at the 1993 Tony Awards.

Based on Manuel Puig’s 1976 Spanish language novel, many would be more familiar with the 1985 movie of the same name, starring William Hurt and Raul Julia. It tells the story of two inmates in a Latin American prison, the recently arrived Valentin (Adam-Jon Fiorentino) a Marxist revolutionary arrested for passing travel documents to political refugees, and Molina (Ainsley Melham) a gay window dresser serving the third year of an eight year sentence for corrupting a minor.

The two men are polar opposites but Molina attempts to ingratiate himself by offering the distraction of recollecting the movies of cinematic vamp Aurora (Caroline O’Connor), an actress he’s obsessed by. Valentin is far from interested, drawing a line down the middle of their tiny cell and instructing Molina to stay on the other side of it. But it doesn’t discourage him, rather he continues to share stories of both Aurora and his mother (Natalie Gamsu) in an attempt to drown out the screams of torture coming from the other cells. The shared fear of their situation eventually breaks down Valentin’s guard and he talks of Marta (Elandrah Eramiha) the woman he loves.

Valentin is tortured for information about his political allies outside the prison, but he refuses to give in, so the prison warden (Bert LaBonté), blackmails Molina. He offers the man release to see his ailing mother, but only if he provides the name of Valentin’s girlfriend, who they believe is the key his group’s organisation.

Certainly this is dark and adult subject matter for a musical, but Molina’s obsession with reconstructing Aurora’s roles, including the titular Spider Woman, allows for classically bouncing show tunes complete with flashy and spangling routines. Prison guards transform into glittering chorus boys and O’Connor gets the opportunity to do what she does best. Floor us with incredible vocal and dance performances that stop the show. Whether hamming it up in Aurora’s role as Tatyana Alexandrovna, hanging from a hoop ten feet in the air, or belting out what is arguably the show’s best number ‘Where You Are’, O’Connor is every bit the international standard of star her credits prove her to be. Choreographer Andrew Hallsworth hasn’t held back on the level of difficulty of his routines for the diva, and she takes on the challenge like a seasoned pro half her age.

But these numbers seem to engulf the first act. It’s rare as a lover of musicals to wish for more dialogue, yet the narrative drive at the beginning of the show is almost limited by the sheer razzle dazzle. Thankfully more detail and true matters of life and death come to the fore in the second act, building to a gut-wrenching crescendo. Director Dean Bryant pulls no punches with his depiction of violence on stage, making the juxtaposition of optimistic tunes and spirited dance routines an uneasy, yet artistically satisfying marriage.

As Molina, Ainsley Melham is excellent, capturing the barely restrained campiness of the window dresser and balancing it beautifully with the man’s dignified loyalty to those he loves. Solo numbers ‘She’s a Woman’ and ‘Mama it’s Me’ allow Melham to demonstrate exquisite vocal control. Adam-Jon Fiorentino’s masculine presence provides great strength to Valentin which is contrasted beautifully as he allows the character to soften under Molina’s influence. Fiorentino demonstrates excellent timing and dance skills as Valentin takes part in his cellmate’s cinematic fantasies, he also has great vocal strength, but is affected by pitching issues when unaccompanied by the melody.

Despite the pedigree, this isn’t Kander and Ebb’s most engaging score, with only a handful of numbers staying with you beyond the theatre, including the aforementioned ‘Where You Are’ and the title number. However, the power of the beautiful harmonies in quartet ‘Dear One’, featuring splendid vocals from Gamsu and Eramiha, as Molina’s Mother and Marta respectively, live in the moment charmingly, as do those in the repeated motif tune ‘Over the Wall’. Musical Director Jack Earle’s small band belt out the score with gusto and even get the chance to join the cast on stage more than once.

It’s a delight to see the Sumner theatre used to its full potential with a grand and spectacular set by Alicia Clements. It misses the opportunity to see Molina’s curtains and movie posters feature as they do in the script, by leaving Valentin and Molina’s cell without walls, but by making it a part of the greater prison, a grander scale is created for when the big show tunes hit full tilt and hidden features turn the penitentiary into glitzy film sets.

Bryant and his team have created a superb production of this lesser known musical. Whether it still has the same impact that it had in 1993, when the issues it addresses were possibly more ground-breaking than they are now, is debatable. Nevertheless, if you consider yourself a connoisseur of musical theatre, this yuletide treat should definitely be on your ‘self-gift’ list.

Performances: 4 Stars

Sets: 4.5 Stars

Costumes: 5 Stars

Lighting: 5 Stars

Sound: 4.5 Stars

Direction: 4 Stars

Musical Direction: 4.5 Stars

Choreography: 4 Stars

 

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