It’s no wonder that Kiss of the Spider Woman, Kander and Ebb’s ambitious but faulty 1992 musical, is so rarely revived. It isn’t only that the score is second rate or that the script (by Terrence McNally) is unremarkable and problematic, but that its success is dependent upon a production that can bring to life the vision required to make it work. (Hal Prince, no stranger to ambitious concepts, directed the original production.) And that’s to say nothing of the caliber of performers required to pull off the musical’s two enigmatic leads.
The current revival playing at the Lyric Stage Company, where it will run through Oct 7, has none of these things. Despite being directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone, a director of considerable vision not averse to taking big risks (Cabaret at Moonbox, anyone?), this Spider Woman weaves a web of tedium and shruggery that is both surprising given Bertone’s track record yet also par for the course given the kind of work that the Lyric has developed a reputation for of late.
Two very different men—one a flagrant homosexual, the other an anti-government revolutionary—share a miserable cell in a Latin American prison and develop a relationship that neither saw coming. As Rihanna would say, they found love in a hopeless place.
Molina (Eddy Cavazos), the prison’s resident queen, is three years into his eight-year prison sentence for corrupting a minor. Flamboyant and outsized, Molina endures regular physical, verbal, and sexual assault at the hands of both the prison guards and its inmates.
As a way to escape the horrors of the prison, he daydreams of Aurora, a gorgeous siren of the silver screen. Aurora is played by Lisa Yuen, who in a series of glitzy production numbers (Bertone’s choreography is exquisite) livens up the gritty hopelessness of the prison. He knows all of her movies by heart and, to a certain extent, wants to be her. (In several versions of Kiss of the Spider Woman, including Manuel Puig’s original novel, Molina is not gay but transgender.) But there’s one role of Aurora’s that frightens Molina: the Spider Woman, an unforgettable diva with a fatal kiss.
The other prisoner is Valentin (Taavon Gamble), the rough revolutionary who refuses to name names, even if doing so would put a stop to his relentless regular beatings. But the warden, played by Luis Negron, isn’t accustomed to not getting what he wants, and he enlists Molina to help him crack Valentin.
Aside from the odd structure of the musical, the two decades that have passed since Spider Woman premiered have rendered many aspects of it problematic: We are shown an eccentric homosexual incapable of manning up and saving himself. Head in the clouds, he eventually succumbs like a silly man who is unable to control his emotions. He comes off as a pawn for the straight man, which is, of course, not at all the point of the story. But with McNally’s script paired with Cavazos’s caricature-like rendering of Molina, we aren’t left with much more than that.
For Kiss of the Spider Woman to land an emotional punch, we must believe that Molina and Valentin have formed a legitimately intimate bond, which isn’t at all the case here. (Other versions show their bond as faked, but that is compelling for altogether different reasons.) Their sudden relationship doesn’t ring true here and their scenes together are as sparkless as the other major problem with this production: the Spider Woman herself.
Lisa Yuen is an actress of considerable talent (she was excellent as the Baker’s Wife in the Lyric’s 2014 production of Into the Woods), but those gifts do not at all align with the demands of Aurora, who must effortlessly seduce and smolder as if our lives depend on it. Yuen is an unconvincing showgirl who seems uncomfortable as the center of attention. Rather than emerging as the star of her escapist numbers she fades into the background and lets the trio of male dancers take the spotlight. (Bernie Baldassaro is one to watch.)
Aurora’s numbers must be an escape for the audience as much as they are for Molina, but it’s a problem when the prison doesn’t seem all that bad and, all things considered, Molina looks pretty content. The scenes between Molina and Valentin are endlessly more watchable than the clumsy production numbers which, although exquisitely choreographed, are frequently in the way of Janie E. Howland’s set.
The Lyric’s space is intimate but such intimacy often gets in the way of illusion, something else Kiss of the Spider Woman should have a bit of. To this end, Jonathan Carr’s projections are a nice touch, and Franklin Meissner Jr.’s lighting is richly detailed and atmospheric. Marian Bertone’s costumes seem to check all the right boxes, yet the looks for Aurora’s numbers appear half-hearted. There’s a dowdy green velvet number (that appears twice!) that is all different kinds of wrong.
Although the musical is flawed to begin with, Kiss of the Spider Woman flirts with a few different issues that make it a compelling choice for our current social and political woes. Under better circumstances, Bertone might be able to get her message out.
KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN. THROUGH 10.7 AT THE LYRIC STAGE, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.