Oh What a Tangled Web

First came the innovative 1976 novel by the late Argentine writer Manuel Puig, followed by his 1981 stage adaption. Then came director Hector Babenco's much-ballyhooed 1985 film. A musical rendition flopped when presented by New Musicals at SUNY Purchase in upstate New York in 1990; however, when resuscitated by the collaborative efforts of well-known Broadway personages Harold Prince, Terrence McNally, and composers John Kander and Fred Ebb, the musical went on to snare seven 1993 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Actress, Book, and Score. Now, on its continuing journey from Spanish to English (it has also been translated into 26 other languages), from printed word to staged extravaganza, from Broadway hit to national tour, Kiss of the Spider Woman stops for three weeks at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, inaugurating this year's South Florida Broadway Series.

Directed by consummate showman Prince, Kiss boasts a book by McNally, music by Kander, and lyrics by Ebb. The show retains the bare bones of Puig's smart and intimate novel about personal and political struggles for power, but it sacrifices the novel's subtlety in favor of broad musical-theater strokes. In the novel, the film, and the musical, Molina, a gay window-dresser imprisoned on a charge of corrupting a minor, shares a cell with Valentin, a macho homophobic revolutionary arrested on suspicion of terrorism. Also in each of these mediums, Molina copes with his loneliness and isolation by losing himself in fantasies about old movies. At this juncture, however, the various renditions part ways.

Set in Argentina and structured almost entirely as a dialogue between the two men, the novel turns around the plots of a half-dozen B-movies, including a Nazi propaganda film. Molina's description of these films dominates the action and inspires the characters to spar about Marxist politics, homosexuality, relationships, fantasy, reality, and social responsibility.

In the film Molina's character (played by William Hurt, who won an Oscar for his performance) takes center stage, unbalancing the equality conferred on the men in the book, as if screenwriter Leonard Schrader and director Babenco found a gay window-dresser who wishes he were a woman inherently dramatic but could not extend themselves far enough to flesh out a Marxist revolutionary. The multiple movie plots described in the novel are distilled into one Nazi flick for the film version, and most of the action takes place in the cell.

By the time we arrive in musical land, the film plots have all but ended up on the cutting room floor. Instead, Molina (Juan Chioran), now incarcerated in an unnamed Latin American country, conjures memories of his favorite old-movie heroine Aurora (Chita Rivera) and reimagines scenes from movie musicals. (A tad removed from Nazi propaganda, mais non?) Against his better judgment, the reality-bound Valentin (Dorian Harewood), beaten down after repeated abuse by the warden's henchmen, finds himself drawn into Molina's verbal web and into an unlikely friendship that burgeons into trust and love. He scoffs, however, at Molina's insistence that the incarnation of Aurora's most lethal movie role -- the Spider Woman (also Rivera), whose kiss summons death -- haunts the prison. Although the novel owes its title to her, the Spider Woman is merely a passing reference in the book; she appears at the end of the film as a more fully realized erotic apparition. Yet through Molina's imagination, Aurora and her alter ego, the webbed lady, prove central to the musical's proceedings. As contrasting figures of death and healing, do they mirror Molina's and Valentin's contradictory natures? Not exactly. Rather, Spider Woman-cum-Aurora serves as a showpiece role for the indefatigable Rivera.

Four decades after knocking out audiences in West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie, Rivera still struts her stuff with the best of them. Those endless legs kick higher than most of our legs will in this A or in several other A lifetimes. If anything, the show's generally uninspired choreography (by Vincent Paterson and Rob Marshall) and Kander's nothing-special music seem to inhibit Rivera's dancing gifts. But she shakes her booty full-out during the one exceptional number, "Gimme Love," a tropical meltdown showstopper that ends act one. And in "Russian Movie/Good Times," the scene that opens act two, during which Molina describes (almost) an entire movie, Rivera the comedian rules the stage.

Equally funny and almost as graceful, lanky Juan Chioran aptly portrays Molina as insecure, acerbic, needy, and compassionate. Saddled with an underwritten part, Dorian Harewood, as Valentin, nonetheless takes several opportunities to move us with his strong singing voice. And in an eerily effective performance as the warden, Mark Zimmerman projects the efficiency of an office manager who, after sanctioning torture during work hours, might return home to a pleasant dinner with the wife and kids.

Lighting designer Howell Binkley laces the stage with shadow, then fills it with dynamic light. Jerome Sirlin's memorable scenic design includes movable prison bars that at times span the stage from floor to ceiling and from wing to wing, and slide projections such as an immense spider web that emanates from deep within the stage and extends to its outer limits. Director Harold Prince makes full use of the lighting and set with multileveled staging, moving from the closeup of a single cell to a prisoner scaling the entire length of the prison bars in an attempt to escape to, finally, Rivera slowly emerging from the depths of the projected web. In this, he accomplishes what novel and film never can -- a live, sculptural evocation of the show's entrapment and fantasy themes.

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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