Left – Caroline O'Connor, Ryan Gonzalez and Bert LaBonté. Cover – Lyndon Watts, Elandrah Eramiha, Joe Gaudion, Caroline O'Connor, Jakob Ambrose, Bert LaBonté, Ainsley Melham and Blake Appelqvist. Photos – Jeff Busby
Excess, extravagance, escapism – Molina, I hear you.
Less well known as others in the Kander and Ebb stable, Chicago and Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman is based on the 1976 novel by Manuel Puig. Powerful, disturbing and beautiful, this story of endurance and the complexity of connection to love has enjoyed a variety of incarnations. The ground-breaking film secured William Hurt the first ever Oscar for an actor portraying a gay character while for theatre, the musical adaptation by John Kander, Frank Ebb and Terrence McNally followed on from Puig’s own stage play version. Kiss of the Spider Woman had its first major run in the West End in 1992 before transferring to Broadway where it went on to win the 1993 Tony for Best Musical.
As a finale for MTC’s impressive 2019 season, Kiss of the Spider Woman has been an alluring, exciting and eagerly anticipated climax. And – I loved it.
I love this story. I love MTC’s vision in choosing a wonderfully different and less conventional musical for Melbourne and I love that we have the incredible wealth of talent here to perform it. I loved it – but there is a ‘but’.
Comparable with the brutality and cruelty of Midnight Express and indeed, even The Shawshank Redemption, Kiss of the Spider Woman seems unlikely subject matter for a musical but then Kander and Ebb were never strangers to the music found amongst outcasts, deviants and criminals. What Spider Woman has that may well have tempted the move toward musical treatment is the extraordinary device within the narrative that shatters the misery of prison reality. Sitting amid the threats, the filth and the desperation of a dank and putrid cell, Molina regales the fantastical and glamourous exploits of a silver screen heroine to his defensive and fiercely masculine cell mate Valentin. Molina’s stories are freedom, connection to the mother he desperately misses and reminiscent of joy beyond the wall but most of all, Molina’s stories are the cue for fabulous musical numbers.
Cue the fabulous musical numbers.
And one more time – cue the fabulous musical numbers.
After pondering the capabilities of the Southbank Theatre, recalling the scenic Scalextrics of The Lady in the Van and considering the couture of Shakespeare in Love, I am left wondering now if austerity became an increasingly uncomfortable talking point during production meetings for Spider Woman.
I’m on the record in previous reviews, that just because you can (afford it) doesn’t mean you should. I absolutely stand by those remarks pertaining to those particular shows and even in this instance, I don’t think I am even suggesting that just because you can (afford it) I really wish you had, but something here is missing and impact is the casualty.
In this production, there wasn’t a single dud performance. Not one. Every member of this noticeably small company delivered and more than delivered. Every minor character, flawless, every voice an absolute delight. This is an insanely talented and hardworking company that I really feel have been let down by underwhelming production and creativity.
Caroline O’Conner is unquestionably Australia’s personification of triple threat. This woman has talent imprinted at molecular level. As Molina’s fantasy diva Aurora, O’Connor’s comic and vampy caricatures perfectly capture the exact measure of memory retelling and ramp up and as the darker Spider Woman, she is deceptively enchanting luring new arrivals with empathy. Caroline O’Connor has a powerhouse of a voice; deep, rich and sublime and her stage craft is equally astounding but somehow within this production she has been diminished.
This is a musical full of quiet, small, confined moments of intimacy and tangible softness between its two leading men and yet it is also a musical that needs to exploit the absolute juxtaposition between the ghastly of grim and the fabulous of fantasy and this production doesn’t. Molina’s Caroline O’Connor deserves to arrive, to ascend, descend or maybe just be captured in the tightest of follow spots as she looms and terrifies as the Spider Woman. Even with talent as indefatigable as O’Connor’s, it’s a tough gig to grab an audience when you're nipping on un-majestically from stage right. It’s such a thrill and privilege to see this extraordinary talent in this role; I just wish she had been a little more cared for theatrically.
While I am clearly disappointed by what has been offered up from the production team, I cannot say more in contrast about this extraordinary cast. Worthy of so much more than a mere note are Natalie Gamsu as Molina’s vocally stunning and heartbreakingly stoic mother and Bert LaBonte as the menacingly cruel but almost likeable warden.
At the very core of Kiss of the Spider Woman is the journey of cellmates Molina and Valentin and irrespective of any reservations or concerns I might have about this production; the performances of Adam-Jon Fiorentino and Ainsley Melham annihilate my petty grievances. As Valentin, Adam-Jon Fiorentino is casting gold. Handsome, masculine, resilient and everything Molina will fall for. Adam-Jon has solid musical theatre form and it's absolutely on offer here with his beautiful voice, leading man looks and a clearly good attendance at dance class. An incredibly accomplished and layered performance from an actor with incredible depth.
I was fortunate enough a few years back to see Andrew Garfield in the National Theatre production of Angels in America and I didn’t think I’d ever see another performance quite like that – and then there was Ainsley Melham as Molina. Perfect, precise, skilled and utterly compelling. This performance is so considered and so contained that its camp excess is magnified, not because of an overstate but extraordinarily intricate subtlety. Every thought, every gesture, every longing. Vocally and musically Ainsley has perfectly and beautifully captured Molina’s heart-breaking vulnerability and honesty while allowing us the essential glimpse of defiant dignity. This is a truly outstanding and astounding performance worthy of the places it will no doubt take him to.
Theatre is alchemy – great can be all of the bits bought with all of the cash and other times it's just some of the parts that are priceless, but as we learn from Pippin, “We’ve got magic to do.”
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
Kiss of the Spiderwoman
book Terrence McNally | music John Kander | lyrics Fred Ebb | based on the novel by Manuel Puig
Director Dean Bryant
Venue: The Sumner | Southbank Theatre, 140 Southbank Blvd, Southbank VIC
Dates: 18 November – 28 December 2019