Friday, August 9, 2013
Theater review: Uptown Players’ Kiss of the Spider Woman rivals Broadway
It's a visual feast that induces chills.
OAK LAWN Kiss of the Spider Woman, currently playing at Uptown Players, is a musical that showcases some wonderful performances, a great story line, savvy stage craft, clever direction, and strives to be a great musical.
The musical premiered in London in 1992 and then opened on Broadway in 1993. It went on to win the Tony for Best Musical, Score, Book, Leading Actor, Leading Actress, Featured Actor, and Scenic Design. It received mixed critical reviews even though it won quite a few awards. Chita Rivera, who starred as Aurora/Spider Woman, received many accolades and this role has been identified as one of the best of her career. Having seen the original production on Broadway with the original cast, I am glad to report that Uptown Players’ production equals the New York production. In some areas it surpasses the Broadway version, in other areas it fall short. But there is no doubt that they have put on a solid production and anyone who is a fan of this musical should go see it.
The musical is based on the Manuel Puig’s novel and the 1985 film version. It is about a gay prisoner, Molina, serving out multi-year sentence in a Latin American country who escapes the grimness of his living conditions through mental flights of fancy by re-telling plots and scenes of some of his favorite movies starring an alluring actress, Aurora, to his cell mate, a Marxist revolutionary by the name of Valentin. The structure of the musical is similar to that of Kander and Ebb’s musical Cabaret, where the musical numbers serve as counterpoint and cynical observation of the brutal reality in the lives of the main characters.
Though it was lauded with many awards, this musical has some inherent flaws in its structure that prevents it from reaching the level of greatness. It’s highly episodic. The scenes are so short that just as we begin to settle into them, the scenes are over. This makes it difficult for the audience to sympathize with any of the characters. Instead we empathize. And while having empathy is a good thing, it isn’t enough to make us feel the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding. It’s a devastating storyline, but instead of leaving the theatre shattered, one leaves simply feeling a twinge of sadness.
It’s a visual feast of a show that will induce chills. In this area the Uptown Player’s version actually improves upon the New York staging. The rotating floor with the rotating prison cell on top created by Director Bruce R. Coleman allows for some wonderful stage pictures. At times the set allows characters to suddenly, almost magically, appear center stage, as was the case with the titular song. That being said, the rotating set is overused. Because the storyline is episodic with nineteen different scenes, the set spun quite a bit and it became overkill.
As Molina, Mikey Abrams gives a performance that is genuine. He is sufficiently gay enough without falling into a stereotype. His singing is an effortless and natural extension of his character. He also has a spot on sense of comic timing. If there is one thing lacking in his performance, it is lust. When Valentin is brought into his cell it is imperative for the audience to feel Molina’s fear at being saddled with a co-prisoner that could bash his head in at any moment, while at the same time finding sexually attractive. This duality is a key character trait because the storyline requires Molina’s fear to change and become love. Eventually, Molina does fall in love and declares his feelings to Valentin but there’s nothing prior to that moment that clues the audience as to his desires. The feeling of desire is a key component to his character, the desire for freedom, the desire for creativity, the desire for human contact, and sexual desire. While he ably portrayed the first three, it was the fourth component that he lacked.
Curiously enough, Valentin, as played by John Campione, is the more sympathetic of the two prisoners. It should have been the other way around. The audience should connect with Molina more since he is the lead character. Though heterosexual, Valentin finds himself developing feelings for his cell mate. John Campione’s portrayal is fascinating to watch unfold. Usually this character is brutish, macho and brings a sense of danger to the cell, but Campione plays Valentin as an intellectual. This choice is interesting but it weakens the inner conflict the character has regarding his feelings towards Molina as it doesn’t read to the audience as such a personal struggle. On the other hand, it strengthens the story line of the imprisonment of youthful idealism contrasting beautifully with the brutality of the Warden.
Bill Jenkins’ portrayal of the Warden has a profound resonance. He is Machiavellian. His manipulation of the cell mates and the prisoners is sociopathic. Every gesture, every note sung, every inflection of his voice is in character. There are no false moments.
The rest of the ensemble is very good. There is a level of machismo that must be portrayed by the prisoners and guards. The male ensemble accomplished this without ever falling into caricature mode.
From the male ensemble, Sergio Antonio Garcia has one brief scene in which he plays Molina’s gay co-worker. His characters of Aurelio and Raymundo are polar opposite and he is convincing in both roles. As part of the dancing chorus he stood out for his nuanced feelings of the Latin rhythms and dance steps in the musical numbers.
Lois S. Hart as Molina’s mother and Sarah Elizabeth Smith as Valentin’s love interest Marta do a phenomenal job with their roles. The musical gives them very little time on stage and each time it’s during an emotionally charged scene. They make their presence felt. The song Dear One is sung with such sincerity that it induced goose bumps.
Ian Moore as Esteban, one of the guards, gives his small role an interesting twist. Normally Estaban is simply a brute. Moore played the role with almost a seemingly pleasant demeanor to masquerade his sadism. One is never quite sure if he enjoys threatening Molina with torture because he enjoys committing acts of brutality or if it is because he might be attracted to him and he takes out his own personal anger over his latent feelings on him.
Aurora, who is also the Spider Woman, is deliciously played by Linda Leonard. The casting couldn’t be any more perfect. She rivals Chita Rivera’s lauded performance from the original Broadway production. I wouldn’t be able to choose which performance I enjoyed more. Ms. Leonard is the #1 reason to go see this production. Her dancing skills in in Gimme Love demonstrate her full range of training, and her vocals on the titular song Kiss of the Spider Woman are chill inducing. Every musical number, be it the opener of Act 2, Good Times, or Come, demonstrated her ability to thrill an audience, deliver the message of the song, and to hit every note perfectly.
Bruce R. Coleman’s direction is excellent, though at times it is over the top. He does a wonderful job staging the dream sequence musical numbers but he frequently over-glamorizes the prison scenes by not making them gritty enough and having too many theatrical effects happen at once with downward lighting, fog, posed actors in the backgrounds. The contrast needed to be bigger between the two if the audience is to differentiate the dream sequences from the reality of the prison. Even though he overuses the wonderful rotating stage, he does bring realism to the scenes that are confined in the small prison cell.
Vicky Squire’s choreography is too busy. While some of the production numbers need to be show stoppers, others need more subtlety. In this production almost each number is treated as if it were a show stopper. The result is that the dancing distracted from the message of some of the songs. Tango dance steps are used with a certain degree of frequency and unfortunately they lack the nuanced finesse of hesitation and syncopation that the dance form requires. She employs a wide range of dance vocabulary throughout the show, but in the process of showing us all the dazzling steps, the dancing doesn’t have a narrative.
Jeff Crouse’s musical direction is spot on. Vocally the show is great and it exceeds the Broadway version. Even though he doesn’t have at his disposal a large orchestra, every musical number sounds full and was very well rehearsed. Over the Wall is a difficult song and it requires the ensemble to deliver a song that builds in layers to a rousing crescendo. Crouse’s mastery of this song is evident of his strengths as a music director.
Suzi Cranford’s costuming, Coy Covington’s wigs and makeup and the actual set construction, under the direction of Master Carpenter Dennis Canright, are executed beautifully. Aesthetically, the show is a knock out. Cranford’s skin tight costumes for the Spider Woman were sexy, alluring, and fit beautifully. There are spider web elements incorporated to her costuming and the use of gloves with built in fingernail extensions giving her hands a claw-like and lethal effect. The clothing of Valentin and Molina looked as they should be: soiled and worn out. Covington captures the glamour of the Spider Woman with a meticulously styled bob wig. Canright’s set construction is breathtaking for it is highly detailed. He captures the feel of a third world prison with exposed boards, dirt, and socio-political posters.
The lighting by Jason Foster is hit and miss within the production. For the theatricality of the musical numbers it is spot on but for the prison sequences it is overwrought. While the use of colors and vertical or angled shafts of light fit the dream sequences quite well, the prison scenes would have been served better with lighting that would capture the feel of harsh fluorescent lighting instead of similarly angled and highly dramatic lighting.
Kiss of the Spider Woman won’t go down as one of the greatest musicals but it comes close. With Kiss of the Spider Woman, Uptown Players has assembled a stellar cast, a very talented crew, and proves, once again, why it’s one of the best theatrical companies in North Texas.
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