Kiss of the Spider Woman | Darlinghurst Theatre & Gaiety TheatrePhotos - Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

If you were to make a shortlist of the types of subject matter that typically lend themselves to adaptation as musical theatre, the tale of a tortured political activist imprisoned with a flamboyant gay window-dresser might not exactly spring to the top of the list. Nor, perhaps would you think that a story that chiefly centres on the relationship between two people confined to a tiny Latin American prison cell would exactly lend itself to the physical and dramatic expressiveness of the stage-musical genre. To be sure, Kiss of the Spider Woman is not your average musical, but it dares to be different and therein lies much of its appeal.

Only familiar with Manuel Puig’s original novel (and the nonmusical film) merely by reputation, I cannot comment on this production’s merits as an adaptation, and yet I felt no disadvantage coming to this production with fresh eyes, and perhaps benefitted from a lack of specific narrative preconceptions.

There is certainly no denying that this is quite an anomaly of a musical, dealing with deeply serious and unpleasant topics of political and sexual oppression, fascism on both institutional and personal levels, and a healthy dose of hatred, betrayal, and tragedy. And virtually all this is set within the physically confined space of a dingy gaol cell.

However, it is not all doom and gloom, as the show is leavened by the rich fantasy life of the mincing Molina, imprisoned on morals charges through flagrant entrapment by a prejudiced system. Molina grew up entranced by the glamour and drama of the movies, and developed an obsession with a particular movie star, Aurora, about whom he fantasises to pass the time and block out the awful abuses and humiliations of his current existence. Molina’s new cellmate, the brooding Marxist revolutionary Valentin, is initially hostile to his intrusive and campy demeanour and wants nothing to do with this “faggot”, as the abusive guards constantly call him.

Inevitably though, the two men grow to form a deep bond as Molina repays Valentin’s scorn with kindness, helping him through the aftermath of the many beatings and tortures visited upon him by the guards seeking information on his Leftist allies. Valentin comes to take comfort in Molina’s fantasies of Aurora, listening to his recountings of her great moments of silver screen melodrama. However, Molina’s newfound devotion to his cellmate is to be tested as the ruthless warden pressures him to become an informant against his friend, setting the stage for one of the play’s primary dramatic tensions.

As you might expect, given the unconventional setting for a musical, this adaptation is highly theatricalised, never settling into complete naturalism even (or especially) in the harshest moments of violence or anguish. The songs are a mixture of more traditional musical numbers expressing the feelings of the cast, and also Molina’s specific fantasies of Aurora’s films. These imaginings are made manifest in the play through the appearances of the suitably vampy Alexis Fishman, who sashays about in a variety of fun costumes before ultimately metamorphosing into the titular Spider Woman, the femme fatale role that terrified Molina as a child and serves to represent his deepest fears of mortality and betrayal.

For a show with a tiny cast of essentially only three secondary roles and two chorus/ensemble performers in addition to the twin leads, it is a testament to the direction and choreography of Stephen Colyer that this ensemble so effectively manages to create an exciting and visually dramatic show that achieves much flair with considerable economy in its staging. The choice of venue has a lot to do with this, and the tiny (although quite deep) Darlinghurst stage imparts a suitably cramped and claustrophobic dimension to the prison-cell setting, with the actors and small band all crammed onto the performance area in a fashion that manages to appear as much by design as necessity.

Indeed, it is such an unusual experience to attend a musical with a high-quality cast in so intimate a performance space that this production is a rare treat on that basis alone. In fact, given both the subject and this production’s successful realisation, one is tempted to think that the show could well be markedly less effective in a more traditional theatre for musicals.

The cast is excellent, with Matt Young and Jim Williams in various roles as guards, other prisoners etc, Wayne McDaniel as the imposing, manipulative Warden, and Jennifer White as Molina’s Mother, filled with heartache. Alexis Fishman perfectly inhabits her primary role as the old-fashioned movie star phantasm Aurora with the perfect combination of sass and old-school sexiness. Frank Hansen does a great job as the willful Valentin, particularly as the character transitions into more sympathetic and tragic territory towards the end, but cannot help being eclipsed by James Lee, the undisputed star of the show as Molina. Perfectly cast and flawless in delivery, Lee runs the gamut from bitchy to tender, exultant to pathetic, cowering to resolute. Although his delivery is as camp as the proverbial row of tents, Lee does not overplay the role one jot, and his pitch-perfect acting is a wonderful compliment to his powerful and agile vocals in song.

Nevertheless, this show could well not be to everyone’s taste. Even aside from those who may find the material too confronting or unpalatably incongruous with the stereotypically light genre of the musical, in and of itself the piece has a few issues with pacing and narrative cohesion. Although never boring, the show feels at times a little thin in terms of actual plot to stretch out to a full-length musical, leaving one to assume that the novel and film versions must have filled out their length with more detail about various minutiae which do not easily lend themselves to dramatic musical expression. Although what does transpire in the prison is engrossing and the theme of the internal fantasy life is equally integral, the balance between the two seems to be weighted too much at times in favour of the latter.

Unusual, engaging and a rarity on many levels, this production of Kiss of the Spider Woman comes recommended to those seeking a musical experience with a difference.

Darlinghurst Theatre & Gaiety Theatre presents
The Musical
Based on the novel by Manuel Puig

Music by John Kader
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Musical Book by Terence McNally

Director Stephen Colyer

Venue: Darlinghurst Theatre | 19 Greenknowe Street, Potts Point
Dates: July 8 – August 8, 2010
Previews: July 8 – 11   Opening Night July 13   Season July 13 – August 8 
Times: Tues – Sat at 8pm; Sun at 5pm; Matinees: Sat 31 July & 7 August at 3pm
Tickets: Previews $27, Adult $37, Conc $32, Senior $30
Bookings: Darlinghurst Theatre Box Office 02 8356 9987 |

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