MUSICALS / American tragedy: Robert Cushman on Kiss of the Spider Woman in Toronto

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE been saying for years that there are only three American musicals of tragic dimensions: Porgy and Bess, Camelot and Sweeney Todd. Now make that four. Kiss of the Spider Woman, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and directed by Harold Prince, got off to a false start in a New York workshop two years ago. Revived and revised at Toronto's St Lawrence Centre, it looks and sounds stunning. Manuel Puig's novel- turned-play-turned-film has been intensified, but it has not been distorted.

The story is of two cell-mates in a South American gaol: Molina, a gay window- dresser and movie-buff, and Valentin, a dour Marxist agitator, who move from mutual suspicion to love. The most obvious way of musicalising it is to make exotic production numbers out of the kitsch movies that Molina describes to Valentin. That apparently was tried before and failed. In this version the numbers have been directed inward. Aurora, Molina's favourite star, appears - in the eminently suitable person of Chita Rivera - to soothe and tease his dreams.

The threatening Spider Woman is the one role of Aurora's for which Molina never much cared; she represents an ineluctable fate that he half-knowingly embraces when he and Valentin make love. It turns him, against his will, political. Their relationship has been engineered by the prison warden who, having failed to break Valentin, hopes Molina will betray him. Molina dies instead; and the show's achievement is to make us believe it.

The mark of a good Hal Prince production is showmanship guided by brains. The descent of the Spider Woman, her web superimposed on the prison bars, is a visual coup to challenge any in his portfolio. The designer, Jerome Sirlin, comes from photography; working within a frame that expands and contracts with flabbergasting ease, he makes projection seem a new device.

In general, Terrence McNally's book carries the narrative brusquely and involvingly, while the songs depict the dreams (Kander and Ebb, best known for dark or flippant shows, have done soaring work here). When these lines of demarcation are breached the show falters: the warden, a character whom neither art nor nature can ever have intended to sing, turns into a melodramatic heavy and Valentin becomes a cardboard hero out of - to coin a genre - agitproperetta.

But Molina is written well and played superbly. Brent Carver makes him quiver with life. This is an authentically heroic performance, complete with apotheosis. Molina must always have wanted to be in a musical; the show plays with this idea by giving him a posthumous old-movie triumph. At the end of it, however, he remains unalterably dead. If most musicals are escapist, this one is a fantasia on escape. Characters yearn for it, clutch at it, and in the end achieve it: inescapably.