THEATRE / A web of deception: Paul Taylor on the new Kander and Ebb musical Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Shaftesbury

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There can't be many big budget musicals that include an 'Amnesty International Observer' among the line-up of characters. But were an actual Amnesty Observer to go and inspect Kander and Ebb's Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Shaftesbury Theatre, it is a fair bet that he would find aspects of it scarcely less objectionable than some of the sights he encounters in a working day.

Based on the novel by Manuel Puig, this new musical is set in one of the prisons of a vicious South American dictatorship. The inmates, though, look as if they have spent more time in punishing sessions with a pec'-deck than in brutal tussles with a torturer. The muscle-tone in this jail is a frank credit to the regime. Indeed, there was one point (as the butch beauties were shoulder-waggling through a steamy, bare-torsoed jungle routine with Chita Rivera) when I thought, 'They've arrested the Chippendales]' This was, admittedly, in one of the film fantasy sequences, and the show, it's true, purports to be a study of the consolations and liberating power of escapism. The might of fantasy would be more movingly illustrated, however, if Rivera's meat- rack of dancers was made up of visibly broken men given a sudden Pennies from Heaven-style surge of chorus-boy vitality by imagination's transforming touch. These jail-birds are all too clearly just 'resting' hoofers.

The attempt to make a musical of Kiss of the Spider Woman is a brave one in principle. After all, a story about the developing cell- mate relationship between an outrageously queeny homosexual, charged with corrupting minors, and a Marxist idealist who is refusing, under torture, to name his confederates, is never going to set the Moral Majority's toes tapping (even with tunes catchier than the unremarkable Latin-American pastiches and inspirationless sob- soulful numbers on offer here). The piece reunites Kander and Ebb and director Harold Prince, the team that gave us Cabaret with its wonderfully astringent look at Weimar values. It's disappointing, then, that the values their current venture seems to be principally interested in are production ones.

These are certainly striking. The designer Jerome Sirlin's projection-wizardry transforms the huge stark cage of a prison into fantastic projections of the homosexual's movie-buff fantasisings: a kitschily roseate jungle; a snowy night in Moscow; a massive web creepily crept across by Rivera's ambiguous Spider Woman.

On a purely technical level, the show is super-slick; on an emotional level, it's more dodgy. Despite powerful, finely sung performances from Anthony Crivello as Valentin, the Marxist, and Brent Carver as Molina, his gay cell mate, their relationship has been coarsened by the adaptation. In the novel, it's left for you to read between the lines that Valentin is consciously exploiting Molina's homosexuality. Here, the writers hit you between the eyes with the fact. They've changed things so that Valentin only has sex with his camp friend as a direct result of hearing that Molina is going to be released and so can be used for passing on a message. His cynicism is played up so that the Marxist can be racked with a stagy repentance when Molina, re-arrested and brutally tortured because of the mission, is flung before him. They then both behave with a noble selflessness that puts paid to ambiguity.

The irony of restaging the movie-mad gay's death within a spoof Hollywood ending, manages to be both heavy-handed and so benign that, in practice, it's about as untroubling as the production's cosmetic attempts at conveying the horror of the jail. But, then, this is a musical about escapism that's not, you feel, inordinately averse to being used for simple escapist purposes.

'Kiss of the Spider Woman' continues at the Shaftesbury Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (Box office: 071-379 3345).