THEATRE

Cell mates, soul mates

A musical explores courage behind bars

John Bemrose June 29 1992
THEATRE

Cell mates, soul mates

A musical explores courage behind bars

John Bemrose June 29 1992

Cell mates, soul mates

THEATRE

A musical explores courage behind bars

KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN Directed by Harold Prince

It is the sort of big-time musical that most Canadians get to see only secondhand—long after it has opened in London or New York City. Kiss of the Spiderwoman has a world-famous director, Harold Prince, who has produced and/or directed more than 50 musicals, plays and operas, most notably Phantom of the Opera. It has songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, whose stage and film credits include Cabaret and New York, New York. Its choreographer is Vince Patterson, who has created dance routines for Madonna and Michael Jackson. But financing and rehearsals for the ambitious new musical took place in Toronto, where it opened a fiveweek run (until July 18) at the St. Lawrence Centre—before moving on to London and New York. The event is a milestone in the burgeoning theatre business in Canada’s largest city. According to Prince, Toronto now has the kind of healthy artistic and investment climate that made New York such a great generator of musicals in the 1940s and 1950s. “The way theatre is being nourished now in Toronto is very, very positive,” he told Maclean’s. “Costs are only a quarter of what they are in New York.”

It cost $2.7 million to mount Kiss. That money was raised by Toronto producer Garth Drabinsky, whose Live Entertainment Corp. of Canada mounted the phenomenally successful domestic version of Phantom. Prince points out that Drabinsky is markedly different from the impersonal teams of accountants and executives who currently produce most of New York’s big shows. “Garth’s a creative producer of the old school,” Prince said. “He truly loves theatre. He’ll sit through rehearsals and offer ideas afterwards. And I can say to him, ‘Garth, lousy idea.’ And he’ll grin, broadly. But other times it’s, ‘Good idea. Thanks.’ ”

Besides Drabinsky, the other major Canadian involved in Kiss is one of its stars, Brent Carver. The 40-year-old actor plays Molina, a homosexual window dresser who has been tossed into a South American jail on a morals charge. One of the country’s leading performers (a veteran of Ontario's Stratford Festival and of other stages across the country, he has also had numerous film and television roles), Carver beat out 70 American actors to win the part. Members of the American creative team for Kiss say that they have been deeply impressed by his abilities. Composer Kander said that Carver was “just brilliant. He’s maybe the best actor I’ve ever written for.” If Kiss succeeds, it could well carry Carver to international stardom, a prospect that the blond, boyish actor says he finds too overwhelming to contemplate. “I don’t let myself daydream about London and Broadway,” he noted. “I just do the work and take what comes.”

Carver’s wait-and-see attitude seems prudent: the musical already has a history of difficulties. Based on the 1976 novel by Argentinian writer Manuel Puig (which also inspired a critically acclaimed 1985 movie), Kiss first became a musical two years ago, when Prince staged a workshop production in Purchase, N.Y. But an unfavorable review in The New York Times prematurely killed the show. Since then, Prince and his writers have completely reworked Kiss, hoping to give it a clearer and more intimate focus.

Puig’s tale of friendship and courage under a Latin American dictatorship seems an unlikely subject for a musical. Most of it takes place in the dingy confines of a jail cell, amid the everpresent spectres of torture and death. Molina’s cellmate, Valentin (American actor Anthony Crivello), is being held for his left-wing political activities. Initially, he has little use for the effeminate Molina, regarding him as utterly devoid of moral integrity or seriousness. But after Valentin is tortured, Molina nurses him—and a bond begins to form between them. Meanwhile, fate stalks them both in the form of the Spiderwoman (Broadway veteran Chita Rivera), a creature of Molina’s imagination who personifies death.

Valentin provides the musical with its vision of political courage. Molina gives it color. A fan of old movies, he is constantly escaping into lavish fantasies based on vintage cinematic songand-dance routines. But the prisoners’ opposing viewpoints create a deep schizophrenic split in the musical from which it never recovers. Many of the more upbeat numbers, intended as a counterbalance to the horrors of prison, have the effect of trivializing them. And even the sadder, angrier songs, while often impressive in themselves, seem sentimental glosses on the real pain and loneliness of incarceration.

The show’s sentimentality reaches its peak in a tasteless scene in which the cast members raise placards bearing the pictures of missing persons (the desaparecidos, or disappeared, under Latin American dictatorships) while singing a rousing anthem about preventing that sort of evil in the future. Such a moment could have had meaning only if the musical had truly conveyed a sense of the victims’ suffering. It rarely does.

Still, Carver is breathtaking as Molina. He gives him a poignant, fragile dignity that bends but does not break before the brutal winds of prison life. At times, he is as innocently funny as Charlie Chaplin lost in the cold coils of a world that he does not begin to understand. And he delivers the moving ballad She’s a Woman, which evokes Molina’s envy of Valentin’s girlfriend, with heart-touching delicacy.

The other strengths of the production include Rivera’s stylishly passionate dancing and Jerome Sirlin’s set, a visual miracle whose shifting depths and shadows resemble a gigantic spider’s web. But, on the whole, Kiss of the Spiderwoman promises much more than it delivers. Behind its expansive gestures and big sound lies a disappointing lack of substance.

JOHN BEMROSE