Ideally cast Kiss of the Spider Woman proves gripping musical

Book: Terrence McNally Music: John Kander Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Melbourne Theatre Company, Southbank Theatre
Until December 28

Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman should be high on the bucket list of any serious musical theatre lover.

Caroline O’Connor was born to play Aurora, who embodies a grotesquely ironic glamour.Credit:Jeff Busby

Opportunities abound to see the most popular works of this famous songwriting duo – Cabaret is often revived and there’s a new, star-studded production of Chicago opening in Melbourne next month – but producers seem to shy away from their much darker, and critically acclaimed, 1992 adaptation of the Manuel Puig novel.

To be fair, it’s hardly featherlight entertainment, being one of the uncommon musicals – Miss Saigon is another – that reaches towards a tragic ambit more typically associated with La Scala than Broadway.

Set amid the torture and extrajudicial killing of dissidents in a South American jail, Kiss of the Spider Woman focuses on two inmates who couldn’t be more different.

The openly homosexual Molina (Ainsley Melham) is a window-dresser who escapes the grim realities of imprisonment through fantasy and an obsessive devotion to Aurora (Caroline O’Connor), glamorous star of the golden age of cinema.

Valentin (Adam-Jon Fiorentino) and Molina (Ainsley Melham) lean on one another to endure horrific suffering.Credit:Jeff Busby

His new cellmate Valentin (Adam-Jon Fiorentino) disdains frivolity for principle. This unsmiling Marxist revolutionary won’t betray his comrades, despite interrogation under torture, and he has no time for Molina’s endless prattle.

Antagonism turns to kindness, and then to love, as the pair lean on one another to endure horrific suffering. But when the jail’s warden (Bert LaBonte) enlists Molina’s aid to crack Valentin, dangling the chance of freedom if he betrays his lover, the stage is set for romantic tragedy.

Dean Bryant’s production is ideally cast. You might remember Melham as the dreamboat lead in Aladdin, and he gives an exquisite performance here as Molina. His Puck-like flamboyance and instinctive kindness yield to anguish as he falls in love with Fiorentino’s brooding Valentin. The show owes much to the delicacy of the acting, which generates an intimately rendered sense of emotional inevitability as the unlikely love story plays out.

Caroline O’Connor was born to play the strange and demanding role of Aurora, a figure who embodies, with glamour of a sometimes grotesquely ironic kind, the lure of escape into the imagination and who also regularly transforms into the Spider Woman – a psychopomp whose kiss is impossible to resist, and invariably fatal.

The prison’s warden (Bert La Bonte) offers Molina (Ainsley Melham) the chance of freedom if he betrays his lover.Credit:Jeff Busby

O’Connor sings, dances and acts brilliantly, and the voluptuousness of her vocals invites fantastic transformation in a way that, visually and in terms of dramatic space, this production sometimes fails to capitalise on. Some of the show’s magical realist eruptions – featuring chorus lines of fascist paramilitaries baton-dancing, and so on – can look like silly stage business.

And if the repressed feminine can be deeply affecting – Natalie Gamsu as Molina’s mother and Elandrah Eramina as Valentin’s girlfriend both sing with charismatic poignancy – shifts between fantasy and reality aren’t sculpted through design as sharply as they should be.

For all that, talented lead performances maintain a vice-like grip on your attention and build an aching emotional intensity in the second half. It won’t satisfy everyone, but musical theatre fans should be pleased by the rare chance to see this ambitious show staged.

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