David Macaluso in Kiss of the Spider Woman
(© Josh Randall)
David Macaluso in Kiss of the Spider Woman
(© Josh Randall)
It's not your father or mother's Kiss of the Spider Woman, now being presented by the adventurous Vortex Theatre Company at the Sanford Meisner Theatre. But then again, this musical version of Manuel Puig's novella by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terrence McNally was never really your parents' musical either.

Yes, the show still has its big production numbers -- cinematic fantasies that bring to mind the golden age of Hollywood -- but at its center, the musical is the story of two men imprisoned and tortured in a South American jail. In director Gisela Cardenas' hard-hitting staging, audiences are never allowed to forget this fact. And while her vision for Kiss proves both bracing and provocative, it also strips the musical of some of its well-balanced theatrical magic.

Scenic designer Jian Jung provides the highly evocative and sometimes disturbing environment in which Kiss unfolds. She places the audience behind a half-height chain link fence on raised platforms that flank a playing area that's bare, save for a wheeled-platform that serves as the tiny cell shared by the "deviant" prisoner Molina (David Macaluso) and political activist Valentin (Max Ferguson).

As the musical progresses and Molina's fantasies come to life -- recreations of movies featuring the screen siren Aurora (played here by three performers, Michael Beatty, Damien deShaun Smith, and Nikki Van Casssele) -- theatergoers discover another aspect to Jung's design. A wall at one end of the stage raises to reveal a seedy dressing room, which viscerally undermines the glamour of this screen goddess.

It's in Cardenas' interpretation of Aurora, though, that the production misfires most profoundly. The one actress and two actors playing Aurora look as though they're dressed for a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While Cardenas and costume designer Oana Botez-Ban may hope the tacky visuals -- not to mention, the gender-blind/drag queen casting -- will make a statement about gay culture's appropriation of screen legends, it means that there is little to mitigate the unrelenting bleakness of the musical's story. Moreover, Molina's ability to conjure another world is what allows him to escape the torture and brutality of his prison existence, and what forms the unlikely bond between the two men who share the tiny prison cell.

Despite the determined lack of glamour during Aurora's appearances, other aspects of this Kiss seduce. Ferguson and Macaluso are both vocally powerful and provide compelling performances as the men who end up as unlikely comrades; while Liza Baron, as Valentin's girlfriend, offers up a performance of sensitive passion.

Perhaps the most exciting moments come from Iona Babic, who is credited for the piano track, and sound designer Marcelo Anez. They have resampled large portions of Kander's score in a decidedly pop-rock vein. Techno, rap, and even disco can be heard throughout the production. At one moment, it almost sounds as if the trio playing Aurora are performing alongside Gloria Gaynor.

The musical embellishments in the production give choreographer Joshua Randall the opportunity bring a host of styles to the stage -- and the chorus of prisoners held alongside Molina and Valentin deliver Randall's athletic routines with galvanizing intensity. When these performers are not within the theater's main playing area, they're tucked underneath the platforms on which the audience is seated. At one point, they bang on the platforms to jar theatergoers - which combined with Anez's evocative soundscape makes one feel as if one is incarcerated alongside Valentin and Molina.

Choices like this one make the show a sometimes exciting experience. But ultimately, Kiss of the Spider Woman has always been a story of the power of fantasy and beauty, and one wishes these qualities might have been a little more in evidence here.