Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is told entirely through dialogue: a prisoner recounts long stories, five of them, from old movies to his cellmate to pass the time. The 1985 film version reduced the number of embedded stories to just one, and the 1992 musical, on stage at Actor’s Express through October 7, surprisingly narrows it down even further to almost none at all.
Though Molina’s (Craig Waldrip) storytelling remains an important plot point in the musical, we don’t actually see or hear any of the stories until the opening of Act II, and then just a tiny piece of an ending. It’s an odd choice by playwright Terrence McNally. Much of the power of the novel and movie comes from the use of the secondary narratives, but in the musical, the film goddess becomes a glamorous, hovering, seductive presence — alternately embodying escapism and death — rather than a character from a recounted narrative.
Those who create musicals are certainly free to change and adapt the source material, and it makes sense to crank up the emotional heat a bit. This Molina is more obsessive about movies, even to the point of delusion, but somehow withdrawing the movie stories themselves diminishes our interest in the real characters.
The play focuses on the psychological pressure cooker of the prison, but that situation is actually pretty static, at least as musicals go. In the earlier versions, the possibly shifting loyalties, the unrequited longings and the manipulations of the real characters are developed in tandem with the movie stories. The stories are not background; they are the actual ground on which the real emotions develop and play out.
Lyricist Fred Ebb’s and composer John Kander’s songs are fantastic, among their best, but few of them lock into place with the story or hit emotional home runs as they should. The most powerful is “You Could Never Shame Me,” sung by Molina’s mother (Patty Guenthner), but she’s an imagined presence, one who enters only occasionally. The show’s big, inspirational blow-off-the-roof number, “The Day After That,” is more than a little odd: the cry of revolutionaries is usually “justice now.” Singing a rousing anthem about how it might take a few days, possibly more, struck me as unintentionally comic.
Still, the cast that Actor’s Express has assembled does an excellent job with the material they’re given. Bryant Smith as the revolutionary Valentin has a lovely heroic tenor voice, and Waldrip impressively inhabits the part of Molina. His reading of the part is incredibly compelling, even definitive, in spite of the more familiar and Oscar-winning depiction by William Hurt.
Liberty Cogen is an appropriately glamorous and mysterious Aurora/Spider Woman. She’s called on to carry a great deal of the show — the part was played by one of Broadway’s biggest stars, Chita Rivera, in the original production — and Cogen handles it well in spite of some sound problems on opening night that made her otherwise strong voice sound a little distant and hushed, with the microphone often picking up the rustle of her complicated costumes. (Presumably the technical problems will be fixed as the run goes on, but they were distracting on opening night.) Ricardo Aponte’s choreography for the chorus of male prisoners is surprisingly demanding, and the ensemble handles it agilely.
I liked the musical’s ending better than the novel’s or movie’s. Valentin and Molina are brought back together for Molina’s final act of bravery, but the last song is an unpalatable mixture of tragedy and kitsch. Though the musical was among the first of its kind to focus on a defiantly openly gay man, in the end — as in the novel and film– there’s something old-fashioned, stereotypical, servile and even pathetic about Molina’s romanticism and ultimate self-effacing sacrifice.