Here comes her kiss


On Wednesday, I went up to London with a friend to see a production of Kiss of the Spider Woman: The Musical, presented by SEDOS.  This group has an excellent reputation as one of London’s best amateur performing societies, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to catch one of Kander and Ebb’s musicals which I hadn’t seen before (though I know the score well through the two cast recordings).  The venue was the Bridewell Theatre, a small and fascinating venue.

The show is based on the novel of the same name by Manuel Puig (which has itself been the basis for a play and a film), adapted by Terrence McNally with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb.  Kiss of the Spider Woman tells of the unlikely and complicated friendship between two prisoners in a South American jail cell – Valentin, a revolutionary, and Molina, serving time for sexual relations with an underage boy.  Molina survives jail by refusing to see what he doesn’t want to see and by recounting the stories of the films featuring screen idol Aurora.  However, he is haunted by the fear of one of her cinematic roles – the Spider Woman, whose kiss means death.  Most of the action takes place inside the jail cell or in the imaginations of the prisoners – Aurora’s films come to life, and we see the two men imagining those they love outside the prison.  The gentlemen of the chorus are prisoners, guards and Aurora’s four dancing men.

This is not one of Kander and Ebb’s best known works, unlikely to eclipse Cabaret, Chicago and New York, New York, but it is a fascinating show.  Molina and Valentin are deeply flawed people to spend an evening with, but very interesting.  McNally’s adaptation succeeds in making them interesting people, and gives little hints about the other characters, who are aptly described as “the people in Molina’s life” – as we see them, they mostly exist as his imaginations.  The Warden is seen as his real self most of the time, but everyone else gets only a few moments in act two where we find out what they’re really like, and how well they match Molina’s idealised version of themselves.  Aurora is deliberately a chameleon, with her presence being the biggest change from the source material in the musical.  In each fantasy sequence where she appears, she takes on a different persona, but is always beautiful and compelling, even as the sinister Spider Woman, who seems to haunt the prison due to Molina’s fear of ugliness and death.  Given the setting, much of the score has a latin feel to it, but twisted beyond expectations – there is a ‘Morphine Tango’, for instance.  Many of the lyrics are about escape, about denying what is real in order to embrace what is not, for this is Molina’s philosophy.  But there is also a searing, soaring anthem in ‘They Day After That’ and a recurring theme of anger, frustration and longing in ‘Over the Wall’ as the various prisoners imagine what is going on outside their jail.  The title number occurs towards the end, but is teased in fragmentary form throughout the show as the Spider Woman’s deadly kiss comes closer and closer to the lead characters.  Everything builds towards a final few scenes which are simultaneously sad and beautiful, tragic and fitting.  Even knowing what was coming, I still found ‘Only in the Movies’, sung by Molina and the People in His Life exceptionally moving.

The setting for this production was simple, with the set largely consisting of two beds and four movable sets of prison bars, wheeled into different configurations depending on the demands of the scene.  Chairs, a hospital bed on wheels and a raised walkway stalked by both the prison’s warden and the sinister Spider Woman were the only other additions, with everything else relying on the imaginations of the characters, actors and audiences.  As Molina spends much of his time living in a fantasy world, slowly taking Valentin with him, this all made perfect sense – we had to exercise our imaginations in the same way he did.  His idol Aurora would appear from various different places to elucidate his philosophy, provide a distraction or enact a movie, bringing life and colour into the jail.  The shadows naturally provided by the theatre’s balcony were used effectively, with the ensemble appearing from the gloom.  Particularly striking was ‘The Day After That’, wherein Valentin recalls how he joined his leftist cause, remembering a rally where people remembered their disappeared loved ones.  The members of the company appeared bearing candles and pictures of those they had lost.  For part of the number, the artificial light was killed, leaving just their faces illuminated by flickering flames.

The direction and choreography were inventive, keeping everything moving, so that there was always something happening – the prison bars on wheels even made the set changes look interesting and engaging.  The band, up on the balcony, sounded super, and the sound in general was excellent.  I know all too well how hard it is to get good sound, so the technical team should be feeling very proud of themselves.  The singing was excellent, with strong harmony (a mostly male musical with strong harmony?  It can be done!).  And the performances from the leads were very enjoyable.  The quartet ‘Dear One’, always a beautiful number, was ravishing, and the trio ‘Anything for Him’ was fascinating and chilling at the same time.  Best of all was the performance of David Walker-Smith as Molina – at turns funny, vulnerable, admirable and touching.  His acting, singing and stage presence were worthy of any and all superlatives.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a brave choice for anyone, not least an amateur group.  The show is dark and strange, the score has moments of haunting beauty, pulsating rhythm and spine-tingling calls from the Spider Woman.  The production met all of the demands of the show head-on, producing a truly fantastic night at the theatre.  I definitely hope to return to a SEDOS production again, and would certainly encourage others to do so.

    • Trish
    • November 28th, 2010

    Sounds like an excellent production. I should imagine it is very difficult to get something like this just right – striking the perfect balance between all the different elements and taking the audience with you. But they have obviously managed it. What a great review.

  1. I really want to go and see this now. And see the movie, and read the book. Good job reviewing it!

  2. The show is over, Reed, but the film is definitely worth watching and relatively easy to get hold of – William Hurt won both an Oscar and a BAFTA for his performance as Molina. I haven’t read the novel (hmmm…I probably should), but I did read the play back in my student days.

    It really was one of the best things I’ve seen on stage in a long time. Productions like this are the reason I don’t like the comment “that was good for an amateur production” – this was ana amateur production, but was good by any standard, and offered excellent value for money.

  1. December 1st, 2010

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