Kiss of the Spider Woman

By Davis, Rick | American Theatre, January 1994 | Go to article overview
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Kiss of the Spider Woman

Davis, Rick, American Theatre

In some sports and intellectual pursuits, results are evaluated both by the success of the final product and the "degree of difficulty" of the attempt. By this system, the figure skater, gymnast or test-taker gets a better grade for doing a harder thing--even if the performance is not flawless--than for a perfect execution of something routine.

In the theatre, too often, we don't acknowledge that some things are harder than others. Shows, especially in the commercial arena, are either "good" or "bad," hits of flops. I have before me a stack of recently released compact disks of musicals from both categories. Some are the result of new production, some commemorate past works in newly digitized form.

A chorus of singing prisoners

Given the task of reviewing them, the temptation is pretty much to bludgeon the current crop about the face and neck using the magnificent Rodgers and Hammerstein 50th-anniversary boxed set as club, with the new Broadway cast recording of Guys and Dolls held in reserve. Kander and Ebb and McNally's Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit Phantom--how could these discs share the same laser light as Carousel starring John Raitt and Jan Clayton, or Alfred Drake invoking the bright golden haze of Oklahoma!? No--the American musical has certainly, by this crude measure, gone into eclipse, with the exception of a few solar flares put out by Sondheim and Finn.

In Kiss of the Spider Woman, Manuel Puig's hallucinatory, psychodramatic story of political terror and aesthetic salvation, we have the makings of a major work of music-theatre. There is conflict and tension and atmosphere enough for Verdi, and the element of the fabulous enters organically via one character's technicolor, celluloid fantasies. The "high-concept" contributions of director Harold Prince and his set and projection designer, Jerome Sirlin--not to mention a chorus of singing prisoners and Chita Rivera bedecked in spidery Florence Klotz frocks--create a theatrical tour-de-force that's still pulling them in.

So why, then, is the CD (a 1992 RCA Victor release) so uncompelling, so cloying? Why does the experience of listening to Kiss of the Spider Woman recede so quickly to the background of one's consciousness? If we apply the "degree of difficulty" standard, we have to allow Kander and Ebb a pretty good score a priori. Kiss is a tough, rich subject that mixes torture, sexual tension between a gay man and his straight cellmate, and colliding levels of reality.

And let's recognize the Kiss album's legitimate strengths. The music given to Molina, the flamboyant window-dresser, and Valentin, the political revolutionary, is almost always clearly character-specific. The performances by Brent Carver (Molina) and Anthony Crivello (Valentin) are emotionally packed, well-sung and crisply articulated. Rivera is in fine, expressive voice throughout. There are a few numbers, particularly "She's a Woman," that remind us of Kander and Ebb at their plaintive, lyrical best (in the style of "A Quiet Thing" from Flora, The Red Menace, which is my candidate for their best single song).

Extraordinary made ordinary

But the recording exposes, more clearly than any in recent memory, the dark side of the "degree of difficulty" standard: Kiss's music and lyrics do not begin to rise to the level of the material, and so the final impression left by the cast album is one of an extraordinary thing made ordinary, pedestrian, pleasant--like the freezer-section versions of exotic ethnic entrees.

Listen to almost any song and be reminded of 50 other Kander and Ebb tunes, which in turn remind us of that amalgamated songwriting team of Harnick and Bock and Comden and Green and lesser Loesser, Lerner and Lowe. Suddenly we're not in a prison cell in an unnamed Latin American country; we're unmistakably on Broadway, where the neon lights (and the cheerful key signatures) are bright.

"Aurora" features the standard show-tune device of wispy recitative accelerating into bouncy rhythms alternating with a third style copped from another tradition, in this case the tango.

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