Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Making Out With Signature Theatre - Kiss of the Spider Woman & The Happy Time - Stage Reviews

Kiss of the Spider Woman - Signature Max Theatre - Arlington, VA (Greater Washington DC)
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Book by Terrence McNally Based on the novel by Manuel Puig, Directed by Eric Schaeffer

The Happy Time - Signature Ark Theatre - Arlington, VA (Greater Washington DC)
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Book by N. Richard Nash Based on a play by Samuel Taylor, Directed by Michael Unger

Before I get started, let me just say this right off the bat, if you are in the DC area, or passing through before this weekend, GO to Shirlington Village in Arlington, VA (Bus 22A from the Pentagon!) and GO SEE Kiss of the Spider Woman (before it closes this Sunday), the revival by director Eric Schaeffer who is having a hot year as the artistic director of the Signature Theatre. His earlier project Glory Days is now moving to Broadway, and now he's programmed a marvelous celebration of Kander and Ebb's (Cabaret, Chicago, Curtains) less produced musicals (that will later conclude with a newer work called The Visit with Chita Rivera, who was incidentally, the original Spider Woman).

Right now however, the lesser known The Happy Time is playing in the smaller space The Ark within the new Signature Theatre complex, but it's Kiss of the Spider Woman that fully enraptures The Max, the larger (but still small and intimate) space in the sleek new complex.

I've never seen Kiss of the Spider Woman (even though it had its world premiere in Toronto) and I had never seen the movie or read the book it was based upon, so I'm watching this totally with new eyes. Wow, I was totally enraptured into the story of Molina, a gay window dresser imprisoned in a South American jail who is forced to share a cell with a revolutionary fighter (and hunky) Valentin, All while Molina survives the horrid conditions of the jail by dreaming about the movies and actress Aurora (the Spider Woman) he loved.

The story is dark, fantastical, and emotionally moving, the score is luscious, and the lyrics and book balances between funny moments that break up the darkness of the story. A darkness this amazing production doesn't let you forget. Screams of pain constantly echo in the background in a terrifically compact yet grand looking set that keeps reminding you of the pains the imprisoned men must endure all while Molina's glorious fantasies come to life. Schaeffer keeps Molina on stage throughout the show, always reminding you that even when we are watching the Spider Woman do her fancy dancy dance numbers, it's always just coming out of Molina's mind, a delusion to dull the pain.

If there is ONE fault I will state, it is that there isn't one smashingly memorably single song, but the score and lyrics fit perfectly within the story that it didn't really matter to me by the end because I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat by the second half of the show and loving every moment.

Hunter Foster (so brilliantly funny in the original Urinetown and part of the new Broadway family dynasty with sister Sutton) is mesmerizing as Molina. I seriously didn't think he had it in him (mostly because I had always seen him in comical roles). His Molina never let you forget that he was keeping up his gay appearances to mentally survive the torturous prison.

Will Chase (High Fidelity, Oklahoma) completely hides his blond boy next door looks under a scruffy dark character and belts that terrific baritone voice in a very strong and solid performance of a strong and solid man that begins to weaken through the corruption of the system all while finding solace in Molina's company and dreams.

Natascia Diaz (Man of La Mancha, Capeman) gets to be one of the three females in the show, and soars gloriously with her voice as the objects of Molina's mental escapes and nicely balances the sultry sexiness and occasional comedic moments needed for her part (her re-enactment of the movie where she's running away is absolutely hilarious). All three performances were pitch perfect and carried the emotionally heavy book with such depth and soul that I would be ready to hand them the Tony Award if only they were eligible.

The fantastic production, with a hunky male ensemble cast (especially a terrific Kurt Boehm as Gabriel replacing James Gardiner who is off to Broadway with Glory Days) is so strong that a move directly to Broadway would require only a few moving trucks and a bus to transport the cast and orchestra. They could and should hitch a ride with Glory Days. The brilliantly simple use of lighting (by Chris Lee) and the versatile set (by Adam Koch) was a playground for some fancy choreography by Karma Camp all within Schaeffer's taught direction that never let's you forget the grimness of Molina and Valentin's situation, and their budding relationship that stems from their survival together.

Meanwhile, next door at the Ark Theatre is a less successful but still poignant piece, a lesser known Kander and Ebb piece called The Happy Times that was originally produced in the 70's just after Caberet opened. It's about a successful photographer Jacques, who returns home to St. Pierre, Quebec to rejoin his family and to stir things up in the quiet little town, all while he commands some idol worship from his naive and emotionally stunted nephew Bibi, and rekindling the heart of the local school teacher Laurie.

The music is quieter and lovely, quaint just like the small town the story is trying to portray, The book however sometimes seems to insert random scenes that don't really fit in with the overall story, sometimes adding an old fashioned french can can number for some lovely girls to perform, or an odd school yard number with Bibi and his friends and enemies. All while Jacques tries to find his place in the world, his place in the town, and his place in his own family.

Michael Minarik's Jacques is full of confidence and life that devolves nicely as he re-evaluates his life the longer he stays in town. David Marguiles' Grandpere is hilarious in his contradictions and boldness, but I felt that the book didn't help most of the rest of the family differentiate themselves, even though they played the typical drunkard uncle, nagging aunt, loving wife and stern father. The biggest disappointment was the showbiz kid performance by the young Jace Casey as Bibi which derailed any belief in his troublesome growth and idolization of his uncle. Instead of an honest and real performance, it felt mannered and stagey, and while the kid must be talented, he was miscast for a role that I believe was older in the original production (with Robert Goulet who won a Tony Award as Jacques). It's too bad too since all the other kids manage to portray real sounding and acting kids and were able to differentiate themselves and distinctive characters, but alas, the main kid wasn't that believable as troubled within a small Canadian town.

The production is admirably produced, with a nice and simple background of frames that flash through different photographs as the story moves along but I'm not sure I was that impressed with the book that attempt to show all aspects of one individuals life choices against the responsibility of family and oneself within a community without being fully successful at it, mostly because of the disconnection with the portrayal of Bibi and the lack of chemistry between Jacques and his rekindled love, Laurie.

A small gem that is interesting to see, but I understand why it is rarely produced. Meanwhile, it's too bad Kiss isn't being produced more often.

Kiss of the Spider Woman - Signature Max Theatre - Arlington, VA (Greater Washington DC) - ***** (5 Stars out of 5)

The Happy Time - Signature Ark Theatre - Arlington, VA (Greater Washington DC) - *** (3 Stars out 5)

Here's some videos of the development of Kiss of the Spider Woman and I posted one here:

Here is my review from the Signature's previous production:

Glory Days - **** (4 stars out of 5) (My Review)

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