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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Wistful Kiss of the Spider Woman
SecondStory Repertory

Also see David's review of Young Frankenstein


Ryan McCabe and Justin Carrell
Seldom (if ever) seen in the greater Seattle area since the Broadway tour with original star Chita Rivera came through the 5th Avenue in the mid-1990s, Kiss of the Spider Woman, based on Manuel Puig's novel and musicalized by Terrence McNally (book), John Kander and Fred Ebb (music and lyrics) is now receiving an intriguing chamber production at Redmond's SecondStory Repertory. Esteemed Seattle actor/singer Billie Wildrick makes a promising directorial debut with this show, and the opening night performance was full of promise, if seeming to need a bit more time for the web to be fully spun to fruition.

Puig's emotional saga depicts a strange, touching and ultimately doomed relationship behind the walls of a Latin-American prison, where Luis Alberto Molina, a homosexual window dresser, is serving an eight-year-sentence for corrupting a minor. His new cellmate Valentin Arregui Paz, a Marxist revolutionary, is already in a bad state of health after torture. Molina cares for him and tells him tales of Aurora, a golden age movie diva, He loves her in all roles, but one scares him: This role is the spider woman, who kills with her kiss. After initially resisting being drawn into Molina's fantasies (played out as Hollywood type production numbers), Valentin ultimately shares his fantasies and hopes with Molina, about Marta his girlfriend. Molina, fearful for the health of his beloved Mother, is approached by the prison Warden and told he will gain his own freedom in return for the name of Valentin's girl. Torn between his growing fondness for Valentin, and fraught with recurring visions of the Spiderwoman, Molina's impossible choice provides the set-up for the final fadeout.

Without the multi-million dollar Hal Prince production and star-wattage of Tony winner Rivera, Kiss is blessed with a strong, hallucinatory script and a fine score (save the dismal and endlessly reprised "Over the Wall" and the lyrically simplistic though musically moving "The Day After That.") Wildrick has utilized both male and female prisoners, undoubtedly to the good of adding more voices to the ensemble numbers, but undercutting the dynamics of the men longing for their women. And a bevy of chorus "spider girls" used throughout Aurora's numbers seems gratuitous. But Wildrick elicits a sincere and at times perfectly emotionally pitched performances from Ryan McCabe, whose Molina shows the grit of the man under the fey fašade, and McCabe's voice shows impressive range and power. He savors the campy ("Dressing Them Up"), poignant ("She's A Woman") and Broadway brash ("Only in the Movies") lyrics. Justin Carrell's Valentin isn't quite as much of a contrast to McCabe's Molina as might be hoped for, but in his more vulnerable moments and as the relationship with Molina grows physical, he impresses, as does his light baritone on "Marta" and "My First Woman." As Aurora, Sari Breznau catches her cinematic otherworldliness and foreboding air, and handles the low Rivera scored keys of the songs smoothly, though a bit more enunciation and smoother body miking would help get across all her lyrics. From about the last act one production number, "Gimme Love," throughout act two, her performance and confidence blossom, and I suspect she will be quite something in latter performances.

As Molina's mother, Carol Richmond is effortlessly moving and she acts the hell out of her two musical numbers, the solo showpiece "You Could Never Shame Me" and "Dear One" (a fine quartet for her, Molina, Valentin and Marta played by Julia Beers). Brad Cook is a smooth and ominous Warden, and a standout of the ensemble is company regular Bo Mellinger who impresses as a thuggish prisoner and as Gabriel, Molina's straight crush on the outside.

Matthew Lawrence's choreography works best at its most flamboyant, as in "Gimme Love", "Good Times" and "Only in the Movies." Brandon Peck's musical direction leading the six-piece band is respectable, though the band and the vocalists weren't always in sync at the performance I attended. Set credited to The Squolf and Alyssa Milione's lighting meet the usual impressive standards of SecondStory Rep in creating the right world for the reality vs. fantasy aspects of the show within a tight budget, and John Allbritton's Aurora costumes show the dash and imagination that is sometimes lacking in the other costumes designed by Carmen Olemedo.

If you have never seen this fascinating musical before, SecondStory Rep's production is worth a trip, and if you know it from the Broadway version, this reimagined version will provide lively debate.

Kiss of the Spider Woman at SecondStory Repertory through April 13, 2014. For tickets or information contact the SecondStory Rep box office at 425-881-6777 or visit them online at www.secondstoryrep.org.



- David Edward Hughes



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