Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre's courageous production of Terrence McNally's Kiss of the Spider Woman (music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebbs) isn't quite what I would call a work in progress. That would imply that some full triumph were imminent — or even possible. Instead, I fear that this attempt to stage a serious, gorgeous and lavish Broadway musical in a garage is destined to remain more notable for its ambition than for its achievement.
Significant achievements are on display here: memorable performances, excellent singing, and a second act that boasts at least four moments of extraordinary power. The trouble is that in this show — set in an Argentinian prison but often bursting into the fantasies of a movie-mad in-mate — the lavishness of the production numbers is the subject of the production numbers. That's tough to achieve in a space like the MET's.
Strong acting is achievable anywhere, though, and we're treated to it here. Charles Fugate does marvelous work as Molina, our fantasizer, a gay window dresser imprisoned on a morals charge. With little affectation, he reveals Molina as bighearted but bristling, primed for humiliations from a world he only wants to love. Fugate moves me every time he demonstrates the pleasure that this lost man takes in the romance of his favorite films, the plots of which he recounts for Valentin (Sam Wright), a political prisoner recently moved into his cell.
Molina exults in song, dance, drama and glamour. At first, Valentin finds all this foolish. Slowly, in several well-acted scenes, the men become closer, discovering the illusions they share: that to suffer is noble and to die for a cause is nobler still. The fact that one comes to this understanding from movies and the other from revolutionaries is an irony that director Karen Paisley's production has the wit to exploit.
MET has no trouble capturing the prison. Tom Rothwell's powerful set, with its bars and catwalks, looms over the fantasy numbers. Unfortunately, Molina's fantasies were not fully realized on opening night. In a series of escalating production numbers imagined by Molina and Valentin, Jan Chapman appears as Aurora, Molina's favorite film starlet. She's a sleek stiletto of a woman sheathed in ball gowns or a spectacular cape (bravo to costume designer Atif Rome), called upon to represent everything from romantic idealism to death itself. Chapman is a vision of glamour and a hardworking dancer, and her smoky alto has its appeal, but she's not singer enough for the part. Handling gentle, slower melodies, she's unpersuasive; only when she hits the big endings does she exhibit the confidence to get the songs across.
Sometimes, a dozen or so prisoners join her, filling the stage — and, one supposes, their inner lives — with impossible music and dance. The razzle-dazzle is raggedy. The dancers seem to be thinking about hitting their steps, which is probably the last thing an audience should notice.
Smaller numbers are more moving. The choral passages are strong, as are the numerous songs featuring two or three characters airing their souls in counterpoint. Fugate and Wright excel at character-based singing, treating their solos more as monologues than showstoppers. Molina kills on "She's a Woman" and "Mama, It's Me," dramatic highlights both, and Wright's defiant bearing lifts "The Day After That" — a song about the inevitability of political change — from personal conviction to what feels like a statement of universal truth. It helps that he's joined by other prisoners representing "the disappeared" of Argentina's dirty war.
A commanding performer, Wright invests Valentin with the self-conscious masculinity of a Hemingway hero. Valentin sweats, suffers, and so believes in his cause — and its own romance — that he's sometimes pompous and prickish. Wright is adept at this.
There is a power to what MET is attempting. Seeing a cane-and-top-hat dance in a prison is stirring, but so is seeing a splashy dance number crammed into a smallish performance space in a garage. That said, as dancers fought for their spaces in the shadows of the jail, I kept thinking: For prisoners and performers, tomorrow could be better, but it probably won't ever be ideal.
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