`Spider Woman' Juxtaposes Music and Misery

KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN - THE MUSICAL. Directed by Harold Prince. Music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. At the Broadhurst Theatre.

YOU can't ask for more impressive credentials in a new Broadway musical than the ones in "Kiss of the Spider Woman." The score is by John Kander and Fred Ebb, responsible for, among other shows, "Cabaret," "Zorba," and "Chicago." The director is Hal Prince, who has directed so many important shows that there isn't space to list them. The book is by playwright Terrence McNally (`Lips Together, Teeth Apart," and "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune"), and the star is Tony Award-winner Chita Rivera. It is based on an Oscar-winning film, which in turn was based on an acclaimed novel by Argentine writer Manuel Puig.

So why are the results at the Broadhurst Theatre so misbegotten? The obvious answer would be that the idea of making a Broadway musical from a harrowing tale of political persecution and torture is wrongheaded. But successful musicals have often been made from unlikely subjects; Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret," which dealt with the rise of Nazism in Germany is among them.

It is easy to see how the creators thought this musical could work. The story concerns the relationship between two cellmates in a Latin American prison. Valentina (Anthony Crivello) is a political dissident under torture to reveal secrets about his underground network. Molina (Brent Carver) is a homosexual window dresser imprisoned for his "deviant behavior." At first there is an animosity between the two men; Valentina is offended by Molina's flaunting of his sexuality. But the two men soon discover a bond in their mutual pain, which for Molina is relieved by an elaborate fantasy life involving Aurora (Rivera), a movie star whose alter-ego is the menacing (but ultimately liberating) Spider Woman.

On film, the fantasy sequences involving Aurora had a restrained and stylized quality that provided an ironic counterpoint to the suffering endured by the two prisoners. For the stage, these scenes have been conceived as elaborate musical production numbers that create a schizophrenic quality.

The audience endures harsh scenes of torture and then is treated to Rivera, in elaborate costumes designed by Florence Klotz, cavorting about the stage. The counterpoint between realistic scenes of horror and glitzy song-and-dance is not adequately conveyed. The suffering of the prisoners is reduced to a series of song cues.

The disappointment is doubly acute because of the high quality of the staging, the production, and the performances. Director Prince, with the aid of Jerome Sirlin's scenic design and projections, creates a series of memorable stage tableaux and the musical numbers have a verve and panache that would be more effective in a straightforward musical.

Sirlin's simple but visually striking sets are equally effective in conveying the cramped confines of the prison cell, the more expansive views of the prison, or the period musical numbers.

Kander has written some of his best music in years for the score. The jaunty "Where You Are" is reminiscent of some of the best music for "Cabaret"; "Good Times" could become a staple, and "The Day After That" is the type of anthem that the score for "Les Miserables" could use. Ebb's lyrics are at best serviceable, and some of the music is merely filler, but all-in-all it is an accomplished Broadway score.

McNally's distinctive dramatic voice rarely shines through in the book, which too often resorts to dramatic cliches in its by-the-numbers portrait of the brutal prison officials and the growing relationship between the two prisoners.

Brent Carver and Anthony Crivello deliver powerful performances; Carver is particularly strong as Molina, conveying the window dresser's steely strength as well as his surface flightiness. Rivera, who overcame an injury that could have ended her dancing, sings and dances with a vigor that proves she is still every inch a Broadway musical star. She almost, but not quite, makes us believe in the material.

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