Friday, 29 November 2019

Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Melbourne Theatre Company, Southbank Theatre, The Sumner

Manuel Puig's 1976 novel went on to be a stage play in 1983, a film in 1985 and, in this form, a Broadway musical in 1993. It's an intriguing piece, about the relationship between a homosexual window dresser imprisoned for morals charges and a political prisoner held to try to get more information about his colleagues, and how the window dresser's fantasies based on the melodramas he's seen form a kind of escape for both of them.

In this version, there's some awkward gear shifting in the script and some of the score that makes this a challenging experience, particularly in the first act. Molina, the window dresser, gets a nice setting-up song, and the fantasy glamour queen Aurora, gets to shift into the grim prison with splashy musical numbers, but a lot of the setting-up songs for Valentin, the political prisoner, and the relationships for both Molina and Vanentin outside the prison seem more functional than inspired. And it does feel very much like Vanentin is drawn into Molina fantasies during the intermission, rather than this being a process we're drawn into - the beginning of act two is a glorious example of Aurora's melodrama capturing both of them (and shortly after features Valentin's best solo as he expounds his political history) but it doesn't feel very much like it picks up where we left act one. There's also a not-exactly-ahistorical homophobia coming from Valentin which makes him a difficult character for the audience to warm to.

In short, this is a rare musical with Act One problems that are mostly improved in Act Two - the writing feels a lot more confident and with a strong sense of direction in the second half. Dean Bryant's production uses a grim-but-grand prison setting with the characters largely on bare beds with a few shifting bits of scenery and some spectacular lighting effects to shift the mood back and forth from grim reality to splashy fantasy, and the trio of cast are mostly pretty strong - Ainsley Melham's Molina has the strongest writing and holds the stage well, Adam-Jon Fiorentino has the right presence but can't compensate for the underwritten character, and CAroline O'Connor has the voice and a lot of the right attitude for Aurora, but does feel a little like an extremely strong character actress playing the role of a glamourpuss rather than someone who is authentically the goddess-figure  the role is written for.

This is a case where, where the show hits its best marks, it's a really fascinating experience, but there's a lot in here where the material feels a little too, dare I say, competent-but-unexciting in the set-up. The payoff is great, the setup is not. So I come out a tad mixed.

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