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A 'Kiss' of Death

Kiss of the Spider Woman
Wilson P. Graham

Prisoner of the Screen: Molina (Francis Jue) survives prison life by conjuring up his favorite big-screen memories in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman.'

Musical version of 'Spider Woman' sucks the life out of a great story

By Anne Gelhaus

'KISS OF THE SPIDER Woman' is a story of sharp contrasts, from the philosophies and lifestyles of its two main characters--gay window dresser Molina and revolutionary Valentin--to the Argentinean prison cell they share and the fantasy world they create to escape from it. These contrasts are sadly lacking in the musical version of Manuel Puig's 1976 novel, particularly in TheatreWorks' current production; thus the tension and the beauty of the original work are all but lost.

As to the score, John Kander and Fred Ebb would have done the novel far more justice if they had relegated most of their tunes to the show's fantasy sequences, in which Molina "tells his movies" to Valentin, in order to heighten their surrealism. Instead, composer Kander has penned sappy, overlong numbers for every interior monologue of both Molina (Francis Jue) and Valentin (Jay Montgomery), and lyricist Ebb has substituted pap for Puig's original, resonant dialogue.

By trying to elicit an emotional response from insignificant moments, Kander and Ebb have effectively neutered what should be a powerful relationship between the two prisoners.

Unfortunately, the TheatreWorks production staff has bought into the idea of Spider Woman joining A Chorus Line. Pamila Gray's lighting designs are particularly irksome. The prison is so bright that there seem to be skylights in the building, and while it's not a particularly attractive place, it's nowhere near rank enough. These men are supposed to be living in the shadows, but all anyone has to do to get a spotlight pointed at him is to burst into song.

Adding to this chipper view of life as a political prisoner is choreographer Bick Goss. In one torture scene, two guards give Valentin what is supposed to be a slow-motion beating, but the end result looks more like they're testing his reflexes with their billy clubs. And in the "Morphine Tango" number, Molina's drugged-out hallucinations start even before he's been given a shot of the stuff.

Aside from a few actors in minor roles, the TheatreWorks cast members deserve a lot more to work with than they get in this production. Jue, in particular, proved he's adept at walking the line between good and evil when he played the emcee in last season's Cabaret, a musical in which Kander and Ebb were much more successful in showing how the extreme cruelty of some people can move others to acts of extreme courage. Knowing that the songwriting team has the potential to tell this kind of story well makes their Spider Woman all the more disappointing.

Kiss of the Spider Woman plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Tuesday (Nov. 11) at 7:30pm, Saturday (Nov. 8) at 2pm, Sunday (Nov. 9) at 7pm and Sunday (Nov. 16 and 23) at 2pm through Nov. 23 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $15-$31. (415/903-6000)

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From the Nov. 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro.

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