Kiss of Death

For a while during the first act of Kiss of the Spider Woman, now at the Orpheum Theater direct from its Tony Award-winning Broadway run, I thought the show was going to be a significant improvement on the movie (starring Raul Julia and William Hurt), which, until the final third, seemed to be almost entirely about how convincing (or not) Hurt was as a mincing, flamboyant homosexual. Then there was the subplot, which I found to be tedious filler — a supposed parody of a World War II B-movie in which Spider Woman Sonia Braga falls for a Nazi storm trooper.

So I was cautiously but pleasantly surprised by the musical — a handsomely designed (sets by Jerome Sirlin, lighting by Howell Binkley), smoothly directed (the incomparable Harold Prince) adaptation (book by Terrence McNally, based on the novel by Manuel Puig) that eliminates the Nazi connection altogether and interweaves the movie fantasies as true illuminations of the larger political themes.

But as the first act hurtled to a close with a production number in which Chita Rivera is a scantily clad bird of paradise, the show swerved off its track. It was as though someone involved with advance sales realized they were attempting to mount a Big Musical and that they needed some laughs! Some skin! Some romance! And a production number that was probably intended to underscore the horror of being in prison for one's political views — she gets liberated from and then tossed back into a cage — manages to achieve a garish silliness that is carried into the second act and culminates in a smashingly ludicrous finale.

The show opens with one of the snazziest effects I've seen: a single jail cell at stage center is opened from the top and sides simultaneously in a sort of theatrical version of a zoom shot. Prisoners appear behind the bars that cover the entire playing area, a marvel of claustrophobic containment, and we meet Aurora (Chita Rivera), the inspirational movie queen. But just as we're starting to feel the buzz of excitement that goes with seeing a star of Rivera's magnitude, the atrocious sound system (Martin Levin) kicks in and turns her wonderfully brassy voice into tin.

I imagine that can be fixed, but the poor sightlines cannot. There is no rake or upward slope to the stage at all, which is undeniably better for the people on it — steeply raked stages require the players to be as nimble as mountain goats — but which makes it nearly impossible for the people in the seats, especially the best orchestra seats, to see what is going on. (My companion moved to the more sharply elevated back of the house for the second act.)

To recap the story: Molina (Juan Chioran), a homosexual window dresser who lives a movie-induced fantasy life, has been jailed for soliciting a minor. A self-admitted coward who lives with his aging mother (Merle Louise), Molina blithely plays informant for the warden (Michael McCormick). In return, he has been allowed to hang a curtain for privacy (which will come in very handy later on) and to decorate with a poster from one of his idol Aurora's movies. His latest cellmate is Valentin (Dorian Harewood), a communist revolutionary, to whom Molina explains his philosophy of survival: denial and escapist fantasy.

Molina is a romantic who has never known love. Valentin is a political idealist whose lover, Marta (Lauren Goler-Kosarin), is a member of the wealthy ruling class. Naturally, Molina falls for Valentin, who has nothing but contempt for him. Those feelings change, supposedly, when Molina — who is managing to keep the warden and his torturers at bay while procuring good food and wine, which he shares with Valentin — nurses Valentin back to health after a nasty attempt to poison him.

Let's talk about the movie for a second. As directed by Hector Babenco and acted by Hurt and Julia, the slow and careful development of the relationship is believable and poignant. You certainly know that Molina is crazy about Valentin — it's inevitable — but you can see and feel Valentin's pain and vulnerability. His response to compassion and love (to my eyes, anyway) is palpable and transforming. It leads to the brilliant ending in which Molina commits a genuine act of courage, knowing it will cost him his life. Great stuff.

Now back to the show. The score (by John Kander and Fred Ebb) contains several marvelous numbers, from Molina's playful homage to movie music (“I Draw the Line”) to the achingly poignant “Dear One,” a beautifully orchestrated quartet in which Molina and Valentin are “visited” by their loved ones — Valentin's Marta and Molina's mother. I also admired the chorus' anthem to freedom, “Over the Wall,” and the raucous “Morphine Tango.”

I wish I could say the same for Chita Rivera's numbers. As Aurora, she represents Molina's fantasy life. As the Spider Woman (one of Aurora's roles), she marks men for death with her kiss. She is seductress, comforter, killer. But even though you have to admire the way she can still kick her still-shapely legs, her songs and dances seemed exploitive.

As Molina, Juan Chioran has comic timing, tenderness, and a honey-rich tenor voice reminiscent of Mandy Patinkin's. But instead of an insecure, shame-ridden queen, Chioran's Molina seems centered, at peace with his sexuality; a sort of poster boy for gay rights. When the guards torment him by forcing him to declare himself “a piece of shit faggot,” I never for a second felt that he believed it.

Dorian Harewood's Valentin is even more of a problem. Or maybe it's just his Valentin in combination with Chioran's Molina, but I never felt there was anything at all between them; not hostility, not distrust, not contempt, and certainly not love.

Act 1 introduces the possibility of friendship between these two, but by the opening scene of Act 2, it's a done deal, as though something has happened during intermission that the audience has not been privy to. Suddenly, Valentin and Molina are sitting together on the floor as though they're at a slumber party, happily chatting and polishing off one of Molina's care packages. Soon it's love, love, love.

When Valentin kissed Molina on opening night, there were audible gasps. I don't think it was merely because some people find such an action unthinkable, but because there was no basis for it. It was shocking in its own way. Without a believable romantic bond, there is no dramatic payoff, and the intended heart-wrenching ending falls as flat as the big “Only in the Movies” finale.

Kiss of the Spider Woman runs through Dec. 23 at the Orpheum in S.F.; call 776-1999.

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