In the dark of a Brazilian prison, a woman’s voice faintly echoes. Supple and alluring, it grows louder. She is singing – but what? The prisoners are all around, dressed in rags, miserable. Suddenly, wearing more sequins than Lady Gaga, out steps Aurora. The Spider Woman has arrived.
Haunting and dazzling, garish and heartwarming, Sock and Buskin’s production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” by John Kander and Fred Ebb is a journey. With huge dance numbers to match its soul-stirring message, it may turn out to be everything you could want in a musical.
The musical, which opened Thursday night, begins with Molina (Evan Strouss ’15), a homosexual window dresser who is locked up for corrupting a minor. To cope with prison life, he holds on to memories of his favorite cinema starlet, Aurora. He remembers every film fondly except for one: “The Kiss of the Spider Woman,” the story of a woman whose kiss is both irresistible and deadly. Along with cellmate Valentin (Teng Yang ’11), a Marxist revolutionary, he is haunted and seduced in equal measure by the spider woman, played by the inimitable and extremely talented Madeleine Heil ’13.
The character of Aurora is “essentially an ode to Elizabeth Taylor,” Heil wrote in an email to The Herald. This inspiration is expressed by familiar Elizabeth Taylor film clips that are interspersed with songs and scenes throughout the show.
Both Valentin and Molina are confronted with the harsh reality of prison life outside their dreams, and their friendship grows stronger as their fantasies grow more engrossing. As the cold prison recedes, the bright and dazzling fantasy of the spider woman reigns, distracting both Molina and Valentin from events in the cell.
But soon events in the prison pull Molina and Valentin out of their dream world and compel them to confront the degrading treatment they receive at the hands of an exasperated prison warden.
Strouss plays an endlessly likable Molina, whose fight against pathos and cheeky sense of humor win sympathy and admiration both from the audience and from Valentin.
The dance numbers in this production are truly huge – at one point, Aurora enters in a “bird of paradise” costume that is ten feet wide and covered in sequins – but so are its themes. Human rights, cruel and unusual punishment and exploitation are all interrogated in this deeply probing show.
Actors raved about Director and Visiting Lecturer in Playwriting Marcus Gardley’s direction and methods.
“I always felt like he was there to help me and guide me,” Strouss said. “He let us make discoveries.”
Heil said working with the choreographer and music director was also a great experience. Spider Woman is musically directed by Adria Barbosa, film and concert composer and conductor, and choreographed by Taavon Gamble, whose choreography is “vibrant, fast, and so much fun to watch,” said stage manager Jennifer Gorelick ’14.
It is a strange production and oddly affecting, but its utilization of the element of surprise only augments its power. Add to the mix the soaring vocals and incredible catharsis of the final scenes, and this show will have even the most exhausted students dancing in their seats.
“Kiss of the Spider Woman” runs Nov. 1-3 and Nov. 8-10 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 4 and 11 at 2 p.m.