Oh What a Tangled Web

Ultimately, however, such effects cannot mask a lack of substance. The politics of the novel have been pureed for mass consumption, with some verbal nods to Amnesty International and torture scenes that double as song lead-ins substituted for in-depth analysis. Valentin's anthem to his political enlightenment, "The Day After That," though passionately sung by Harewood in his rich, multioctave voice, illustrates how what purports to be intense really is shallow. The song attempts to pay tribute to the thousands of Latin Americans who have disappeared in countries such as Argentina, Guatemala, Chile, Colombia, and Paraguay. But los desaparecidos, represented on-stage in slides and photographs, merely serve as props in a candlelit production number, unintentionally defining what doesn't work about the show: It uses police-state torture as a plot device, and repressive regimes as an excuse to stage a musical.

Additionally, McNally's book and Ebb's lyrics lack political and geographic specificity. (Ebb should know better; he and Kander brought us the unapologetically political Cabaret.) In these writers' hands, Valentin is no longer credible as a student of Marxism; he merely espouses a generic radical fervor and a commitment to social change that's at best perfunctory. And by refusing to name the Latin American country in which Valentin and Molina find themselves behind bars, the writers implicate the entire continent of South America. On the surface, such generalizations may seem to vividly point up the pervasive horrors of our time. On closer inspection, however, such generalizations actually mimic the tactics of repressive governments, which, by refusing to be specific about what constitutes human rights and by refusing to acknowledge those who have disappeared, perpetuate those horrors.

Great theater works often spring from existing sources -- Shakespeare stole most of his plots -- and novels are not off-limits. Novels can offer glimpses of inner worlds in a way that other mediums can not. But live theater can present just as potent, if different, an experience -- in a public arena and in three dimensions. Perhaps that's why Kiss disappoints. The imposing talents who drew on the original work did not use the power of the stage to illuminate what inspired them about the story. Instead they created a glitzy, glamorous, but superficial evening at the theater.

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