Twenty years have passed since "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (book by Terrence McNally, music and lyrics by the great John Kander and Fred Ebb) appeared on Broadway. And in 1993, the tragic drama of Luis Alberto Molina, a homosexual window dresser imprisoned for allegedly corrupting a minor, seemed very progressive in its depiction of a hitherto apolitical gay character who decides, after falling in love with the straight revolutionary who shares his heinous cell in some Latin American prison, that he really should stand for something.
That's after Molina stops escaping to the fantasy world represented by his favorite movie-star diva, one Aurora, played on Broadway by Chita Rivera — the diva to end all divas, in her prime.
Watching BoHo Theatre's ambitious, earnest and, ultimately, somewhat frustrating staging of this show last weekend, as directed by Peter Marston Sullivan, I was struck by how fully removed this character now seems from the current political and social realities that gay men and women have built for themselves, even in the more repressive corners of the world. Struggles remain, of course, even in Illinois, but this central persona now truly seems to belong to another time and place, another distant reality, spied darkly through the glass of the musical theater.
As musicals go, this is a very tough one, requiring scenes of intense intimacy between Molina (Nathan Carroll) and Valentin (Evan Tyrone Martin), the freedom fighter whom the authorities want the seemingly weak-willed Molina to betray, before opening out into spectacular production numbers with Aurora, aka The Spider Woman (Jennifer T. Grubb), and the company of svelte male dancers who make up her web.
BoHo certainly has assembled an impressive array of talent. Although young for this role, Carroll reaches for Molina with very moving passion and commitment. Martin, another actor gaining maturity, is singing better than ever. And Grubb certainly comes with the requisite femme fatalese, so to speak. Indeed, many of the individual moments are very successful. Fans of this score, which is not frequently heard these days, will leave mostly satisfied with the vocals; Carroll's take on the beautiful "She's a Woman" is especially potent and the exquisite "Dear One" needs only be sung adequately to have me dangling on its hooks (and it was sung better than adequately here).
So why doesn't the show fully catch us in the throat, as it should? The main problem is that the stakes just don't rise to the level that the material demands. Take the moment when the warden (adroitly played by Scott Danielson) shows up with the news that Molina's beloved mother is dying. It's a ruse to get him to inform, but Molina doesn't know this. And Carroll doesn't react with anything like enough horror and panic. His mother dying? Lord god, what a terrible thing to learn.
To put all this another way, the production is very imaginative and consistently effective when it comes to the stylistic demands of the piece (there is inventive design work from Patrick Ham, the creator of an impressively immersive set, and rich costumes from Bill Morey). But it's much less secure when it comes to the emotional underpinnings of these souls in crisis.
Grubb, a big personality with rich pipes, has the enigmatic part of her character down cold, but she needs to convey far more force in her role as a temptress. In many ways, she (and the escape from social responsibility she represents) functions as the main antagonist of the musical, yet you don't get enough of a sense here that Carroll's Molina is really fighting off something that has permeated the very essence of his manhood.
Similarly, Martin, who needs nothing so much as confidence and better personal definition, seems to hold back in crucial emotional moments, when he should be risking everything. Taken as a whole, the production lacks sharp contrasts and incisive edges.
"Kiss of the Spider Woman" is, for better or worse, not so much a pastiche as a deeply political musical about a gay man deciding whether he has the guts to stand up and fight for freedom. Especially now, there can be no compromise there.
When: Through June 30
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $25-$27 at 773-975-8150 or bohotheatre.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye