Saturday, August 25, 2012

Kiss of the Spider Woman: The Musical We'd Expect from Kander and Ebb

Brent Carver and Chita Rivera, original cast, 1992
(photo from
A cast of energetic actors with fine voices fully inhabited their roles in this 1990s musical.  At the intimate King Plow Theatre, they performed on a versatile multi-level representation of a penitentiary.   The story is direct and relentless:  Valentin, a leader in an underground movement to topple the (unnamed) country's despotic regime is thrown into a small cell with a pederast Molina.  One is a man's man; the other is flamboyantly effeminate, so of course, we wonder if they will become friends, or more.  The plot ramps up a notch when the sinister warden orders Molina to extract information from his new roommate. Molina's frequent escapes into fantasies of screen idol Aurora give the audience exuberant musical numbers to enjoy between scenes of suffering, degradation, and violence.  In her role as "The Spider Woman," death personified, Aurora seduces Molina from the first song, promising "pain will cease" and "I can bring you peace."  Everything at this final preview performance was exactly right.

So why was the applause for each number merely polite, and why did my mind wander so often?   What more could we want from the show?  The material, admirably well-made, let down the actors and the audience.  How?  I kept wondering.

My friend Susan may have identified the problem right away.  She came to the performance recalling the movie starring William Hurt as Molina. (1985) .  At intermission, she asked, "Why does this story need music?"  I suspect that Kander and Ebb kind of skirted that question because they saw such a tempting opportunity to use musical numbers in the way they did in their breakthrough show CABARET, to mirror grim reality with ironically cheerful numbers.   Besides this, the story and setting gave the songwriters -- pigeon-holed as the guys who wrote snappy ironic pastiche for Cabaret and Chicago --a great reason to write full-throated ballads and anthems.   These are the outstanding numbers of the show.   In "Dear One," Molina's mother and Valentin's beloved Marta sing a tender double duet, their voices overlapping in canon like waves of constant longing. All the prisoners join in Valentin's fierce anthem of hope for the Marxist future:
Someday we'll be free
I promise you we'll be free
If not tomorrow
Then the day after that...
Or the day after that.
The late Fred Ebb's choice to build his lyric on that plodding phrase "the day after that" demonstrates his artistic integrity.   How effective would it be if rough-hewn Valentin and his uneducated cohort of "the people" sang with Ebb's trademark snap and polish?  Even so, there's a strong undercurrent of despair in the song that belies the explicitly hopeful lyrics, as the day of arrival recedes further away with every repetition of "the day after that, or the day after that...."  It's a wonderful marriage of form and content.

My own restlessness during the show may have something to do with the fact that, leafing through the lyrics printed with the original cast recording, back to front, I ran across several variations of the same sentiment in different numbers:  somehow... someday... sooner or later... there's going to be good times... so I wait to [get] over the [prison] wall...someday you'll believe the lie..."Someday you'll hear a cry."   Whenever the chorus of men geared up to dance behind "Aurora," I thought, "Well, here's another number to express what we just heard expressed, but with skin, kicks, and big high notes."

Every scene and song felt like exactly what we've come to expect from the creators Kander and Ebb, Terrence McNally and Harold Prince.  Insofar as that means efficiency, integrity, ingenuity, and an arc of story that brings characters to confront the lies they've believed (such as Valentin's prejudices against Molina), that's a great thing.  But we come to art hoping for more than we expect. 

(Reflection on KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, based on the novel by Manuel Puig.  Originally driected by Harold Prince.  Produced in Atlanta this month by Actors Express.)

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