I hope we’re all strong because if the rest of Signature Theatre’s four month, multi-faceted Kander & Ebb Celebration is as pungent and emotionally captivating as the first entry, Kiss of the Spider Woman, we’ll be completely wrung out by the time it’s over. The 1993 Tony Award winner for Best Musical seems re-born here, fresh and intense under Eric Schaeffer’s sharp direction.
Equally important, Hunter Foster provides heart as Molina, a conflicted, movie-obsessed prisoner, and Natascia Diaz provides heat as his muse, the exotic and cinematic Spider Woman/Aurora. The foul conditions and moral squalor of a dictator’s prison, escapist fantasy, brutality, love, and betrayal are all ratcheted up to acute levels and set to pulsating Latin rhythms. It’s a dark swirl out of which the healing power of imagination emerges.
Terrence McNally’s book, based on the Manuel Puig novel, still tears away the façade of humanity in a compelling tale of persecution. Flamboyant fantasy sequences add poignant counterpoint as two very different men caged in a South American prison cope with their fates, set to the vibrant Kander & Ebb score. Molina, a gay window dresser swept up into the regime’s clutches on a morals charge, ends up sharing his cell with Valentin (Will Chase), a Marxist revolutionary.
The mild-mannered, softly effeminate Molina escapes the horrors of the prison by reliving movies made by cinema diva Aurora, much to the disgust of the ideologically driven Valentin. As time passes, the two form a bond and the firebrand revolutionary begins to share Molina’s diversions. But betrayal lurks just below the surface, just as Aurora’s Spider Woman can kill with her kiss.
What Schaeffer has managed so skillfully here is to blend the magical realism of Molina’s imagination with the unrelenting grittiness of the squalid prison and the oppressive atmosphere of total political control. The 1940s-style cinema production numbers and the mind-numbing, body-breaking drudge of life in a brutal cage co-exist in the same slightly surreal realm.
Designer Anne Kennedy has Diaz costumed mostly in black, avoiding the temptation to make her production numbers Technicolor delights. It’s a successful effort that culminates with Diaz clad in an outfit in which her head is framed by feathery tendrils of cloth that can evoke either a spider in a web or a black sunflower, whichever is scarier or more meaningful to you. Adam Koch’s two-story set, with subterranean passages, is a dark jumble of cells. The color we see most in this world of grays is crimson, splashed over the set by Chris Lee’s lights for the obvious connotation.
Foster provides light moments with just enough camp to get laughs without losing the realism of Molina’s despair, subtly playing against Chase’s macho rebel. One of the most transcendent moments comes as Diaz magnificently sings the aria “Come,” while writhing on a spiral staircase and summoning a dead prisoner to rise, ghostlike, to her feet.
The energy of the entire cast propels the story forward, with the percussive use of tin cups on metal bars, or thick chains beaten on metal posts like a cursed anvil chorus, providing a backbeat to Kander’s music. Schaeffer moves his cast rapidly from the thrilling anthem “The Day After That,” as Valentin and the families of the “disappeared” rise in revolutionary fervor, right into the cold reality of yet another beating’s aftermath that lances the heat with cold dejection.
In the end, this is one Kiss that leaves you wanting more.