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Molina (Scott Hunt, left) has an uneasy relationship with cellmate Valentin (Joe Joseph), a leftist revolutionary, in Short North Stage’s production of Kiss of the Spider Woman (photo by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Molina prefers fantasy to reality. Small wonder: As a gay man living in a South American dictatorship in the 1970s, he’s too shy and scared to act on his romantic desires.

One of his fantasies involves his fevered friendship with Gabriel, a straight man who can’t give him the love he craves. Mostly, though, his fantasies revolve around Aurora, a movie star who embodies the feminine grace and beauty he tries to re-create in his job as a department-store window dresser.

Then Molina is thrown into prison on the trumped-up charge of making advances on an underage male. It soon becomes evident he’s being pressured by the warden to glean information out of Valentin, the leftist revolutionary who shares his cell. After avoiding reality all his life, Molina suddenly finds himself in a horrifying dilemma that not even fantasies of his beloved Aurora can block out.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is based on a novel by Manuel Puig that previously inspired a 1983 stage play and a 1985 movie starring William Hurt and Raul Julia. The stage musical—with book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb—opened on Broadway in 1993 and won that year’s Tony for best musical.

After seeing the film, the play and the musical, I still find the film the most moving interpretation of the story. But Short North Stage’s production of the musical, directed by Michael Licata (who also helmed 2015’s wonderful A Little Night Music), is impressive on several levels.

Scott Hunt gives a relatable portrayal of the in-over-his-head Molina and backs it up with a beautiful singing voice. Joe Joseph is macho but vulnerable as Valentin and also displays strong pipes, especially in an Act 1 lament about Marta, the woman he loves.

As Aurora, the movie star who dominates Molina’s fantasies, Eli Brickey often is required to sing while swinging (upside down, even) from a suspended sash. Though she aces this dizzying task, at other times her breathy voice seems stretched by the role’s vocal demands. She also projects less glamour than one would expect from such a fantasy figure, though she has no trouble projecting a satirical take on glamour, as she does during a Betty Boop-style number in Act 2.

Movie queen Aurora (Eli Brickey) performs with dancers (from left) Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe, Kevin Ferguson and Patrick Carmichael. (photo by Jason Allen)

Movie queen Aurora (Eli Brickey) performs with dancers (from left) Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe, Kevin Ferguson and Patrick Carmichael. (photo by Jason Allen)

Key supporting roles are nicely handled by Todd Covert as the manipulative warden; Alex Armesto and Amari Ingram as the abusive prison guards; James Schoppe as Molina’s friend, Gabriel; Danielle Grays as the sexy but unreliable Marta; and Linda Kinnison Roth as Molina’s loving mother.

Visually, the production boasts a weathered-looking two-story set designed by Jason Bolen. Though not lit as dramatically as it might be by Adam Zeek, it allows the action to skip effortlessly between terrifying reality and the musical fantasy sequences that represent the inner workings of Molina’s troubled mind.

Speaking of those fantasy sequences, they benefit from Edward Carignan’s playful and sometimes kitschy choreography and are ably accompanied by musical director Philip Brown Dupont and his mighty backstage band.

As a final bonus, every word of dialogue and lyrics comes through clearly, not the easiest feat in the Garden Theater’s acoustically challenging auditorium.

Add all this to the fact that this is the area premiere of Kander and Ebb’s award-winning work, and the show becomes a top priority for fans of musical theater.

Short North Stage will present Kiss of the Spider Woman through Nov. 20 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$42. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

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