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Kiss of the Spider Woman—

The Musical

Book by Terrence McNally

Music by John Kander

At the National Theater to April 9

Considering the tortured route Kiss of the Spider Woman—The Musical has taken to the National Theater, it’s pretty damn snappy. First a novel and then a play, an Oscar-winning movie, a musical-workshop flop, a London controversy, and finally a Broadway and touring smash, the show has been put through nearly as many changes as its star ChitaRivera (which is saying something, since her every entrance is marked by a slinky new costume).

A glitzy song-and-dance show about brutality in a Latin American jail, Spider Woman orchestrates screams, beatings, tap-dancing desaparecidos, and the most ambulatory cellblock Broadway’s ever seen into a gaudy floor show that wouldn’t be at all out of place in Las Vegas. Staged by Harold Prince, who has a knack for turning peculiar notions into hit musicals, it becomes an odd—and oddly affecting—entertainment as it tells Manuel Puig’s now-familiar tale of flamboyant gay window dresser Molina, who shares his cell and fantasies of B-movie glamour with straight, left-leaning idealist Valentin. There have been alterations in the story and its impact along the way—about which, more later—but the show’s creators have brought enough show-biz savvy to their adaptation to make it work on its own terms.

In previous incarnations, Molina’s fantasies were lurid scenes from movie melodramas, but here they’ve been turned by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb into gaudy musical showcases for Rivera, who—with shoulder shimmies, kicks at eye level, and raspy vocals—sells them to the rafters. The lady pretty much defines Broadway pizazz as it has been practiced for the last four decades or so, and at 62 shows no noticeable signs of slowing down. Whether climbing the huge grid that alternately represents prison bars and her spider web, or prancing around in white tie and tails or bird-of-paradise plumage, she’s briskly authoritative. Twenty years and a shattered leg notwithstanding, she commands the stage every bit as spectacularly today as when she was top-billed in Kander and Ebb’s 1975 musical Chicago (which contained, quasi-prophetically, a number titled “Cellblock Tango”).

In Spider Woman, she co-stars with the cellblock itself. A latticework of prison bars designed by Jerome Sirlin (best remembered locally for his projections for 1000 Airplanes on the Roof), the spare but spectacular setting is forever reconfiguring itself into towering walls, cramped torture chambers, lacy webs, neoclassical streetscapes, and opulent Latin nightclubs. The show looks splendid at the National, as if it’s on its way to Broadway rather than on a post-New York tour headed for Detroit, Phoenix, Fort Lauderdale, and Cleveland.

(Not every show playing D.C. lately has been mounted with such lavish attention to detail—something you might not have guessed if you’ve been following the theater coverage of the city’s dailies. Both the Washington Post and the Washington Times took the misleading tack of sending reviewers to Jelly’s Last Jam while it was in Baltimore, and running the reviews when the show arrived a week later in D.C. Trouble was, big chunks of Jelly’s‘ setting, including a pair of spiral staircases and an elaborate finale backdrop, had to be left on the truck when the show got to the Warner Theater because they wouldn’t fit in the former vaudeville house’s cramped wingspace. Audiences saw a musical—which had been described by the Post as a “first class production” with “stylishly glittery” sets and “wonderful” music—performed largely in front of black curtains with an amateurish orchestra whose players presumably didn’t get offered the more lucrative gigs at Ford’s Theater [Nunsense II, which will play for months], or the KenCen [Washington Opera’s multiweek engagement].)

At the National, Spider Woman‘s patrons are getting the real Broadway article with the original star and a disciplined pit band conducted by local-boy-made-good Rob Bowman (who wandered off to New York a few years ago, and who’ll soon take a hiatus from this tour to help with the London premiere of Hot Mikado, which features his musical arrangements). Also central to the National’s production are Juan Chioran’s lanky Molina, who sometimes seems to be doing a Tommy Tune impression, and the gruff Valentin of John Dossett, who performed heroically (or perhaps foolishly) on opening night with a full-fledged case of laryngitis.

Now, about those story alterations: Each of Spider Woman‘s incarnations has worked changes on Puig’s original novel. The stage adaptation (produced in Spanish last season at GALA Hispanic Theater) was done by Puig himself, so its sentimentalizing of the story is hard to challenge. Hector Babenco’s 1985 film (starring William Hurt as Molina, Raul Julia as Valentin, and Sonia Braga as the Spider Woman) came under fire for softening Valentin’s politics, and tampering with both characters’ motivations, but again Puig acquiesced. Each time, the political aspects of the story, which are rooted in the Argentine public’s struggle against a brutal military dictatorship, have been downplayed, while the story’s sexual tension (which admittedly has political ramifications) has moved to the foreground.

In this context, it’s hard to know what to make of reports that before Puig died in 1990, he encouraged Terrence McNally, who scripted the musical version, to make a rather startling change in the story’s final moments. In all the other versions, when Valentin offered Molina the sexual union his heartsick cellmate had been craving, it was always possible to see it as a purely loving gesture. But in the musical, Valentin is only using sex to convince Molina to get a message to his revolutionary buddies. “If we touch before he goes,” sings the leftist, “He’ll make that call/He’d do anything for me/Anything at all.”

Whether the aim is to wrest additional audience sympathy for Molina or to reduce Valentin’s appeal, the effect is to turn Spider Woman into a straightforward story about a well-meaning, even noble gay man who is cruelly used by everyone around him. Unlike the political plot line, this is a story Broadway’s been telling for years in everything from Torch Song Trilogy to La Cage aux Folles to Angels in America, and one musical comedy audiences haven’t had problems with since A Chorus Line introduced them to openly gay and transvestite characters in 1975.

It’s tempting to ascribe other changes to the creators’ desire not to be seen as repeating themselves. Could it be that all mention of the Spider Woman’s German past was dropped this time around because Kander and Ebb didn’t want to call up too many memories of their own Cabaret? Or that Argentina is never referred to because Prince didn’t want comparisons with his Evita?

Regardless, what’s certain is that all these folks are up to their old tricks—from creating a Zorbalike male chorus singing “Over the Wall” to floating a Sweeney Toddish bridge from which the Spider Woman sings her big Act II number. Kander and Ebb even recycle the basic idea of Cabaret‘s chilling Nazi hymn, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” for a new, utterly unironic anthem called “The Day After That.” It’s sung stirringly by Valentin, whose voice is soon joined by a chorus holding photos of political prisoners—a visual reference to the protest rallies that drew attention to Argentina’s “disappeared” victims during that country’s “dirty war.” The song’s assertion that “someday we’ll be free, if not tomorrow, then the day after that” rings a bit hollow right now, coming fresh on the heels of revelations that some of Argentina’s real-life Valentins died after being dumped unconscious into the Atlantic from military planes. But politics was never this show’s strong point, anyway, and moments later the director is conjuring up new nightclub variations for Rivera.

Prince is about to stage Kiss of the Spider Woman in Buenos Aires, and amid all the sequins and feathers, prison bars that turn into tap dancers’ canes, and flashily choreographed spectacle, “The Day After That” will surely be an emotional moment. That’ll be true whether Argentine audiences think it trivializes real pain (Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been entirely forgiven there for Evita) or take it as a sober memorial to the darkest days of their nation’s history. Either way, they’re in for quite a show—something that could also be said of patrons at the National.