Even though it ran for more than two years on Broadway in the mid-1990s, enjoyed a national tour that lasted nearly that long, and won a bunch of Tony Awards, including best musical, “Kiss of the Spider Woman’’ is a relatively overlooked part of the Kander & Ebb canon.
This may have partly to do with the formidable shadow cast by that team’s two mammoth hits, “Cabaret’’ and “Chicago,’’ and partly to do with the fact that the 1985 film version of “Spider Woman,’’ for which William Hurt won an Oscar, still occupies a roomy compartment in the cultural memory.
But director-choreographer Rachel Bertone’s stirring production at Lyric Stage Company of Boston makes a pretty good case that the distinctive merits of the musical adaptation should be recognized by contemporary audiences, particularly when anchored by a trio as accomplished and committed as Eddy Cavazos, Taavon Gamble, and Lisa Yuen.
Cavazos, making his debut at Lyric Stage, is the impassioned center of this “Spider Woman.’’ He delivers a vividly expressive performance as Molina, a gay window dresser who conjures fantasies about a glamorous movie star called Aurora (Yuen) in order to survive his bleak days and nights in a Latin American prison, where he has been confined for having sex with a youth who, unknown to Molina, was underage. Viewing him with hostility is his cellmate Valentin (Gamble, also appearing at Lyric Stage for the first time), a political dissident who — even after subjected to torture by prison guards — refuses to give up the names of his comrades in the resistance to the dictatorship.
The warden (Luis Negron) pressures Molina to betray Valentin, exploiting the window dresser’s love for his elderly mother (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda) by dangling the possibility of release, while the screams of prisoners offstage remind Molina that the warden has other means of persuasion at his disposal. The musical’s suspense revolves around whether Molina will ultimately sell Valentin out, but it is the deepening emotional bond between Molina and Valentin, and the recognition by these two very dissimilar men of their shared humanity, even kinship, that reverberates most affectingly within “Spider Woman.’’
That, and the musical’s faith in the sustaining power of fantasy, particularly the kind fed and nourished by the cinema and its mythos. Molina is certainly self-dramatizing, but he’s also in extremely desperate straits, so he tries, in essence, to turn his grim circumstances into a movie, and to escape into that movie. In at least this regard, Molina shares with Sally Bowles of “Cabaret’’ and Roxie Hart of “Chicago’’ a reliance on imaginative flights of fancy as a means of transcending his oppressive reality.
While the score of “Spider Woman’’ is not the equal of “Cabaret’’ or “Chicago,’’ the musical steadily, almost sneakily, intensifies its hold on you, scene by scene, after a somewhat sluggish start to the Lyric Stage production, which features a spare, stark set by Janie E. Howland. Based on the novel by Manuel Puig, with a book by renowned playwright Terrence McNally, “Spider Woman’’ periodically succumbs to melodramatic interludes, and not only in the fantasy sequences. It’s less chilly than Kander and Ebb’s signature works, but their trademark willingness to grapple with wrenching subject matter is evident throughout (as it was with “The Scottsboro Boys,’’ presented two years ago at SpeakEasy Stage Company).
As Valentin’s girlfriend, Katrina Zofia is a standout in a solid supporting cast that also includes Davron S. Monroe, Diego Klock-Perez, Ricardo Holguin, and Arthur Cuadros. Gamble brings both intensity and sensitivity to his portrayal of Valentin, deftly conveying the sense of a man slowly discovering new depths in himself. As Aurora, Yuen embraces the chance to add to her record of standout work at Lyric Stage. (She played the glumly overachieving middle-schooler Marcy Park in the company’s wonderful 2010 production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,’’ and has since returned for “Into the Woods,’’ as the Baker’s Wife, and “Sweeney Todd,’’ as the Beggar Woman.) Attired in a different one of Marian Bertone’s elegant costumes each time Aurora is summoned from Molina’s imagination, Yuen skillfully captures the alternately regal and ingratiating manner of ’40s screen sirens.
But it is Cavazos’s poignantly hopeful Molina who makes the strongest claim on the audience’s heart — and the strongest case for the legitimacy of seeking to craft an alternate script in the face of suffering. “Of course they’re not real,’’ Molina replies when Valentin mocks his fantasized movie scenes. “They’re better than real.’’
KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN
Book by Terrence McNally. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the novel by Manuel Puig. Directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone. Music direction, Dan Rodriguez. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through Oct. 7. Tickets from $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
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