Finally! A Broadway musical about torture and male bonding in a banana republic prison cell. "Kiss of the Spider Woman," based on the Manuel Puig novel that also inspired the 1985 film, manages to be compelling, beautiful, funny and moving without minimizing the pain or ugliness of the subject matter.
What is remarkable about the way director Harold Prince, book writer Terrence McNally, lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander have gone about the task of adapting Puig's bizarre novel is the restraint they have exercised.
The two major characters are Molina, a flighty window dresser, and Valentin, a seemingly humorless revolutionary. The prison authorities enlist Molina to get his cellmate to reveal his confederates in the outside world.
In the midst of the ongoing brutality of prison life, Molina fantasizes about his favorite movie star in her most exciting role, the Spider Woman, a Hollywood image of feminine allure in which lurk mythic reverberations of death. The Spider Woman transforms what might be crude melodrama into something provocative, disquieting and operatically haunting.
At any point, the creators could have made the show either too cruel or too camp. But throughout there is admirable balance. Without minimizing the story's essential horror, McNally manages to lard it with his own unmistakable wit.
Kander and Ebb have written one of their most pungent and original scores. They have limited the use of parody, often their strong point, to the Spider Woman numbers and a satiric Morphine Tango. Everything else propels the action forward. There is a powerful choral piece, "The Day After That," which embodies Valentin's radical politics without resorting to cliche.
For Molina, they have written some expectedly dizzy music but also songs of deep tenderness. Valentin is also given music of great delicacy. Happily the roles are played by two superior performers. (In fact, the whole cast has been impeccably chosen.) In the splashier role, Brent Carver shows an admirable gift for clowning but also manages to suggest reservoirs of repressed emotion. Anthony Crivello moves compellingly from menace to compassion for his cellmate, and the growing affection between the two is movingly portrayed.
In the title role, Chita Rivera is as delectable as ever, dancing and singing with an abandon and sizzle that belie her 60 years.
Visually, the show is a constant marvel. Jerome Sirlin has found an abstract beauty in prison bars. From the opening "shot," a closeup on the cell, to the final phantasmagoric image of Molina embracing the Spider Woman, Harold Prince has given the show a cinematic fluidity and a poetic charge.
Chita Rivera's back, and Spider Woman's got her! But has she got "Spider Woman"? No matter. First, some history.
After a prodigious amount of re-jigging, re-writing and re-thinking, the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman" finally made it - following a notable success in London's West End - to Broadway last night, opening at the Broadhurst Theater.
Its rough road to Broadway reminded me of a notorious show-biz story concerning a musical starting disastrously in Boston. So, the producer's wife returned to New York, while the producer traveled on - and on - with the show, giving it a new star here, a new second act there, new scenery, new costumes.The works.
Eventually he telephoned triumphantly: "I've got it. It's 100 percent better than it was." His wife arrived. "A 100 percent better? It's 500 percent better. And it still stinks!" They closed it out of town.
The Harold Prince staging of this musical based on Manuel Puig's famous novel, with a book by Terrence McNally, was first shown experimentally in 1990 in Purchase, N.Y., where the gun-jumpiness of the New York Times had it viewed by the entire New York critical fraternity.
It is now very, very different. It's not 500 percent better, but then it never did stink. But it was a mediocre show at the beginning, and it's a mediocre show at the end.
Prince tried to fix it by providing this story of the relationship of two prisoners in a South American jail - a political revolutionary and his cellmate, a homosexual window-dresser - with a new focus and seriousness.
Regrettably, even more than before, the theme - with its naive opportunities for revue-style dance numbers where the homosexual regales his new butch friend with the stories of movies made by a Latin sex-queen star, Aurora - suggests a "Springtime for Hitler" atmosphere of Amnesty International meets "La Cage aux Folles."
The novel is scarcely one to make a song and dance about - unless you are, say, Alban Berg. Kander and Ebb, good musical comedy chaps both, even if running a bit low on inspiration here, are not.
Faith, love, corruption and betrayal - decent operatic stuff, trivialized here by a score that sounds like Broadway at its most stubbornly conventional, and a staging - a grim set by Jerome Sirlin - by Prince which unavailingly tries to theatricalize the cinematically dramatic.
As for McNally's book - this never even distinguishes clearly between the fantasy Aurora and the Spider Woman herself, a symbol of death. But it was obviously the essence of Puig's novel to be more hospitable to a screen translation than any stage production. Simply look at the nature of the beast.
In the past, casting has sometimes been Prince's Achilles' heel - not here. It is impeccable. Rivera - with the best sustained legs since the legendary Danilova! - dolled up in her Florence Klotz costumes, has just the right mixture of camp, gusto and menace as the eponymous kisser.
Anthony Crivello proves all tortured righteousness as the revolutionary - a very good performance - while, best of all, Brent Carver, while too stereotypically high camp to be politically correct, is unexpectedly moving as the plucky little window dresser, a cliche with bells on and set to music, following his secret heart.
In my view everything that could be done has been done - and it couldn't be done. Sorry!
In its new incarnation as a dark Broadway musical directed by Harold Prince, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is still about what happens when a gay window dresser and a straight Marxist guerrilla are thrown together in a Latin American jail. That tale of an unexpected friendship has its touching moments, most of which are in the tender, fluttering hands of Brent Carver, the riveting Canadian actor who makes his New York debut as the window dresser, Molina. But the relationship that fascinated and finally moved me most in the show at the Broadhurst is only tangential to its plot: the love affair that Mr. Prince masterminds between Chita Rivera and the audience.
Ms. Rivera plays the title role, a B-movie queen in a Louise Brooks bob who stars in the celluloid reruns that Molina conjures to pass the time of his incarceration. This means that she gets to pop on stage every scene or two in musical parodies of 1940's movie schlock (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb) and to wear costumes that include a scanty, yellow feathered jungle skirt and headdress, a czarina's silk gown and, most persistently, a horror picture's spider bodysuit befitting her status as the evening's symbolic angel of death.
Did I mention that Ms. Rivera is 60? That only a few years ago her leg was smashed in an automobile accident? You would never guess so from her performance. The kicks are still there, as is her sinuous vibrato and, most of all, an aura of utter confidence that is the essence of a Broadway dancer's brassy spirit. Ms. Rivera can raise the audience's pulse even when she's doing nothing much, such as merely bouncing to the beat in white tie and tails, riding the music with her shoulders and knees as if it were all hard angles, in the final bars of a jazzy Latin-flavored number titled "Where You Are."
What makes her affecting is the way Mr. Prince uses her. Ms. Rivera, after all, is not and never was a great star. Her two best roles, in "West Side Story" (her first association with Mr. Prince) and "Bye Bye Birdie," reside only in the memory of those who saw them more than three decades ago. (She did not repeat either performance on screen.) Her last hit was "Chicago" in 1975, and most of her flops since then lack even a cult pedigree. But she keeps on going, a creature of the stage and only the stage, and it is exactly the pride and eccentricity of that calling that Mr. Prince exploits. She is to mainstream show business what Molina, the gay window dresser imprisoned on a trumped-up morals charge, is to society: a brave fringe figure who survives every knock. No wonder Molina embraces her. No wonder the audience does. From there, it's only a small step for the audience to sweep the exotic Mr. Carver into its arms as well.
"Kiss of the Spider Woman," a much improved version of the show Mr. Prince first staged in Purchase, N.Y., three years ago and revised last year in Toronto and London, does not meet all the high goals it borrows from Manuel Puig's novel. When it falls short, it pushes into pretentious overdrive (a "Morphine Tango," if you please) and turns the serious business of police-state torture into show-biz kitsch every bit as vacuous as the B-movie cliches parodied in its celluloid fantasies. Yet the production does succeed not only in giving Ms. Rivera a glittering spotlight but also in using the elaborate machinery of a big Broadway musical to tell the story of an uncloseted, unhomogenized, unexceptional gay man who arrives at his own heroic definition of masculinity.
The smart author of the script is Terrence McNally, who has tucked some of his spiky wit into Molina and who invests the window dresser's interior life with the same emotional urgency he brought to the Callas-worshipping opera fanatic in his play "The Lisbon Traviata." But Molina, who is embodied by Mr. Carver with moist, insomniacal eyes, a nervous voice, badly bleached hair and a slight physique, is neither a pathetic loser nor a larger-than-life queen. When he stands behind Ms. Rivera to imitate her steps in his dreams, he really seems a window dresser, a shy creature of the shadows. The performance is far more honest than the Molina of William Hurt, a movie star in Oscar-winning disguise, in the 1985 "Spider Woman" film. As supported by Mr. McNally's lines -- "I'm not a stupid man," he says credibly -- Mr. Carver's Molina is sensitive and adult yet still waiting to grow into the more selfless manhood that is his destiny.
It's the musical's depiction of Valentin, Molina's odd-couple cell mate, that is a cliche, draining the heat from the show's central relationship and defusing its political content. Though robustly sung by Anthony Crivello, the part never amounts to more than a cardboard clone of Che: Che from Mr. Prince's "Evita," not Che Guevara. Valentin's politics are unspecifically Christ-like, his personality no more than bland macho posturing. Since Valentin hardly exists in his many scenes with his cell mate, the gradual evolution of their relationship from hostility to mutual acceptance to devotion and sexual union seems ordained mechanically by the arbitrary pulling of plot strings, rather than dramatized from within.
Mr. Ebb's lyrics, which carry much of the burden of conveying Valentin's emotional and ideological convictions, are too often blank. To his credit, he has written a defiant opening number for Molina, "Dressing Them Up," that has some of the undertow of Rose's "Some People" in "Gypsy." He has also, unsurprisingly, supplied glitzy show-biz pastiches for the Technicolor interludes ("What is grim is going to be grand!") in his best Liza Minnelli voice. But the black-and-white grit of totalitarian repression and poverty is hardly his forte. The lyrics he gives Valentin to express his personal yearnings (which are addressed to a girlfriend outside the prison wall) sound like Tin Pan Alley boilerplate (and are interchangeable with the equally generic songs exchanged between Molina and his devoted mother). Worse, the Act II anthem given to Valentin and his followers ("The Day After That") relies on ear-splitting volume, not substance, to make its point. It portrays Valentin's idealistic cause so emptily that it could be delivered without amendment by any group, from Branch Davidians to Young Republicans.
While Mr. Kander's score is often fun and sometimes lilting and has been orchestrated with a sumptuous sense of atmosphere by Michael Gibson, the blandness of the songs' content lets down the show's dramatic structure. Especially in the second half of the long first act, when the numbers are digressionary and arrive in no particular order, the show seems to spin its wheels while waiting for whatever major plot development will bring on intermission. Nor do the beefcake-laden movie sequences presided over by Ms. Rivera always pass the time. The routine projections by Jerome Sirlin and canned choreography by Vincent Paterson (with "additional choreography" by Rob Marshall) lack the florid detail and lush extravagance of high camp.
Mr. Prince's staging, by contrast, is almost always commanding. He ceaselessly manipulates the major elements of Mr. Sirlin's elegant set, front and back drops suggesting an infinity of prison bars and spider webs, to create ominous mood and to expand or confine the stage space to match either the freedom or oppression of his characters' spirits. If the show's occasional literal displays of brutality -- torture and interrogation sequences, an onstage defecation, a fatal escape attempt -- come across as hokum, at least Mr. Prince errs by trying to be real rather than discreet.
The evening's uncompromising darkness is not an affectation in this Broadway director's case, but the product of an entire career that began in earnest with "Cabaret," the 1966 show that shares its historical atmosphere, show-biz framework and symbolic death figure with "Spider Woman." For those who dote on Broadway musicals, Mr. Prince's new work would be worth seeing just for the Fellini-esque finale, a flashback to an old movie palace that is a variation on the famous "Loveland" sequence in his 1971 "Follies." When he finally brings Mr. Carver into Ms. Rivera's arms to seal his fate with her long-awaited kiss, you cannot help feeling a shiver of pure theater. Not because the kiss realizes this musical's lofty intentions, but because it consummates the showmanship of a director who wrote the book on how to spread a web of white heat through a Broadway house.
The last musical of this Broadway season, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" arrives three years after a failed suburban New York workshop nearly killed it. "Kiss" will undoubtedly divide critics and audiences alike -- as it has in London -- with fans applauding Harold Prince's bold take on the brutal subject matter and detractors pronouncing it a camp travesty of the 1976 Manuel Puig novel.
In truth it's both, though the camp aspect of this split-personality musical dominates virtually from the outset. But debate over its merits may well prove to be one of the show's chief attractions and increase its somewhat limited chances for a healthy run. Otherwise, producer Garth Drabinsky has a tough battle in store.
With its references to torture and degradation in an Argentine prison, and its nearly exclusive confinement to a cramped cell, "Kiss" doesn't present itself as the likeliest candidate for musicalization. Then again, Puig tells his tale almost entirely through dialogue between a gay window dresser in the third year of an eight-year prison term for propositioning a minor, and the Marxist revolutionary who becomes, briefly, his cellmate.
Their relationship grows as the window dresser nurses the abused politico. Key to the progress is the window dresser's rich fantasy life, which is centered on the tacky '40s B-movies whose plots he spins out in endlessly dreamy monologues.
Skeptical at first, the revolutionary is drawn into these tales as a way of transcending the screams of the tortured and the pain he himself endures. But Puig skillfully balances the political and sexual tension that gives the book its insinuating power.
Even Leonard Schrader's 1985 screenplay for Hector Babenco (in which William Hurt won an Oscar for his portrayal of the gay man) respected that dynamic; while certainly flawed, the film honored the political prisoner's commitment, and Raul Julia made him, for all his dogma, a sympathetic character.
All that is pretty well trashed in the musical, a collaboration by Terrence McNally (book), John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) that reduces the revolutionary Valentin (Anthony Crivello) to a moody, brutish dope while expanding the role of the movie star Aurora (Chita Rivera) into a creation of epic kitsch.
Rivera, looking like an LSD-inspired vision of Carmen Miranda, closes Act 1 singing "Gimme Love" from a suspended cage during one of the show's major excursions in tropical overdrive.
She also plays the title character, who shows up in arachnid regalia (including bat wings -- go figure) when it's time to die.
And then there is Molina (Brent Carver), the tale-spinner, whom McNally, Kander and Ebb have made the show's exclusive hero. Carver is the production's chief attribute, in a performance that grows subtler and more persuasive as the story unfolds.
He's also easier to take after Valentin warms to him and the show becomes less of a drag act without the drag. Nonetheless, Crivello is one-note, and the note this team has given him betrays Valentin's passion as much as it embellishes Molina's.
Rivera looks great but it must also be pointed out that her every move and vocalization reveal effort and coarseness rather than lissomeness, glamour and seduction.
Designer Jerome Sirlin has constructed an ever-changing grid of brushed aluminum that constantly configures and reconfigures the prison, playing with perspective and scale as though we are watching through a camera's aperture.
For variety -- since this gets boring and monochromatic despite the gimmickry and Howell Binkley's atmospheric lighting -- Sirlin throws in a wild range of projections.
And of course, there are those Prince staples, a bridge (for the prison warden to oversee things) and a finale that puts the audience backstage, looking at another audience in a splashy coda that's the final frivolous flourish tacked on this simple construct.
The music is awful and tasteless, Kander scoring lots of clanging chimes and thumping percussion that frequently sounds like a Balinese gamelan tuning up for the Monkey Chant. There are a few sweet ballads thrown in to keep everyone off guard.
Under Prince's direction, the show unfolds seamlessly, though there is nothing very original in the work of two choreographers, Vincent Paterson and Rob Marshall.
This is Prince's first Broadway show since "The Phantom of the Opera" in 1988 , still the best-looking show in town. "Kiss" has an intriguing look, but not intriguing enough for three hours.