San Diego Theater Review: KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN (Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido)

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by Tony Frankel on September 11, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Defying torture and humiliation in a Latin American prison, two cellmates—seeming enemies—build a passionate friendship and a larger loyalty. Hollywood visions become escapist illusions, binding dramatic opposites: an apolitical gay window-dresser and devoted mama’s boy named Molina—serving eight years for sex with a minor—and Valentin, a straight, unrepentantly newly jailed idealistic political revolutionary. They will use each other to survive an unbearable situation in this richly persuasive bonding musical by Chicago and Cabaret creators John Kander and Fred Ebb and bookwriter Terrence McNally.

Molina—who, it seems, has never loved a gay man or, for that matter, a grown-up—nonetheless helps Valentin to endure torture by inventing a stream of increasingly flamboyant scenarios (whose art increasingly mirrors their life). These fantasies are based on Aurora, Molina’s favorite movie star siren/diva, who does what Molina dreams and what he dreads: One of her roles was a Spider Woman, whose kiss meant certain death. In turn, Valentin infuses the apolitical Molina with newfound courage (though, as a flamer in Latin America, he needed big cojones just to survive). Fusing the feminine and masculine sources of their souls, they create a perfect human.

At the time The Kiss of the Spider Woman hit Broadway in 1993, the tale was familiar from Manuel Puig’s novel El Beso de la Mujer Araña, a popular 1983 two-hander play, and the independent film starring William Hurt and the late Raul Julia.

Ray Limon’s revival at the Welk Resort Theatre manages to overcome the musical’s shortcomings with a stunning central performance by Richard Bermudez as Valentin, superb musical direction by Justin Gray, a cast of sterling vocalists, and an indefatigable male ensemble that executes Limon’s inventive yet fantastically old-school Broadway choreography.

Sadly, the musical’s drawbacks are still in evidence, especially McNally’s overwrought book, which goes from torture to song and torture to tango-esque production number and torture to song without expanding the parts of the torturing prison guards and Warden (Robert Hoyt), who are painfully one-dimensional (the story should be relentless, not the dramaturgy).

Compared to many musicals of the last quarter-century, Kander & Ebb’s score manages to give us an enormous amount of great songs. But as with pretty much every one of their later scores, it has a number of really good tunes (the anthemic “The Day After That,” the haunting “Dear One,” the chilling danse macabre title number), but it also has some disposable chorus romps (“Morphine Tango” and the Carmen Miranda-like first act finale “Let’s Make Love”).

A lot of time is spent on the latter production numbers (the captivating male ensemble here is nothing but strong singers and dancers who provide appropriate color and support to that wonderful celluloid-stylized choreography), but not the two added female parts. Still, the marvelous Kylie Molnar as Valentin’s girlfriend, Marta, and the exquisite Lisa Dyson as Molina’s mother both transcend their superficial roles with beautifully crafted, empathetic characterizations and stellar musicality.

Vibrant and never offensively stereotypical, an elegantly effeminate Jeffrey Scott Parsons is sufficiently simpatico as Molina, but he is unnecessarily mannered. Natalie Nucci offers smoky, sensuous, scintillating vocals as Aurora; and given that all those superfluous dance numbers were created with Chita Rivera in mind, Nucci’s athleticism is up to the task. Less convincing is the hard-boiled vamp— Nucci gives it 110%, but her demeanor seems better-suited for Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie.

It is Richard Bermudez who steals the show as a rugged and dignified Valentin; in stature, gravitas, sexiness and Broadway-caliber vocals, this guy is a stunner (Bermudez was equally as stunning in Musical Theatre West’s Evita and Moonlight’s Aida).

Performing on two levels of this very compact penitentiary, the busy male chorus members (doing everything but molting), never get in each other’s way, despite a cramped playing area that’s equally prison-like in its claustrophobia. The prisoners are Colden Lamb, Collin Rand, Max Herzfeld, Sergio David Salinas, Justin Matthew Segura, John Paul Batista, Sean Kiralla, and Matthew Ryan). Patrick Hoyny’s sound design is distractingly amped for the hard-of-hearing and the uneven mix included feedback at last Saturday’s matinee.

Productions of this musical are rare (and certainly not for the kiddies), and the brave Welk Theatre is to be congratulated for taking this on. It’s definitely worth a visit.

photos by Ken Jacques

Kiss of the Spider Woman
Welk Resorts Theatre
8860 Lawrence Welk Drive in Escondido
ends on October 22, 2017
Thurs and Sat at 1 and 8; Sun at 1
for tickets, call 888.802.7469 or visit Welk Resorts

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