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THEATER REVIEW : A Glitzy, Superficial 'Spider Woman' on Broadway


NEW YORK — There are many things "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is not, but, first, we need to establish all it most emphatically is.

This adaptation of Manuel Puig's 1978 novel, which opened Monday night at the Broadhurst after a notorious false start in a 1990 workshop and a successful London run, happens to be the only grown-up musical of the season that ends officially Wednesday.

Harold Prince's first production since "The Phantom of the Opera" is flashy trash and shamelessly lobotomizes the politics of the prison drama. But it's the only new show with a wild heart and a fresh eye, the only one that budges the form in a seriously extravagant theatrical direction, the only one with a book (by Terrence McNally) that's stylish, the only one with an accessible gotta-dance score (John Kander/Fred Ebb) that isn't exclusively content to sound like music we've heard before. And it's the only one with Chita Rivera in designer Jerome Sirlin's magical-realism fantasies of haute-kitsch, spider-movie queen fabulousness.

Perhaps most conspicuously, this also is the only show with a performer who has the febrile, flamboyant, altogether riveting appeal of Brent Carver, a tall, floppy, blond Canadian in his breakthrough Broadway debut. Carver inhabits Molina--the gay prisoner who relives escapist movies to survive his Latin American jail--with an otherworldly, yet earthy, aura that all but obliterates William Hurt's conscientious Oscar-winning drag in the 1985 movie.

But if you're looking for political understanding and substance to match the humanity and glitz of the gay side of the story, you'd better stick with the late Argentine's novel or even Hector Babenco's film. On Broadway, the message is not what the most charitable among us could call subtle. Prison torture: bad. Politics: boring. Love: good.

This imbalance should seem disappointing, at the very least, to fans of the original, which put a gruff straight revolutionary named Valentin into the same cell with Molina, jailed as a sex offender, then let the realist and the romantic learn from each other. Up until the Broadway version, both men were sympathetic, each genuinely came to care about the other and about the passion that cost each his freedom. And so, not surprisingly, did we.

But everyone except Molina and his fantasy goddess (Rivera) are made of cardboard now--and she is made of B-movie show-biz paste. We might not expect much more from the stock prisoners' chorus, the meany guards, the evil warden, Valentin's dull upper-class girlfriend (Kirsti Carnahan) and Molina's dear old mom (Merle Louise).

What has been done to Valentin's half of the story, however, is disgraceful. He is now a stick-figure rebel, at best, and actually much worse. When the two finally have sex, the act has been changed from a shattering exchange of contrasting manhoods to a despicable manipulation. Valentin pretends to care so Molina will take a message out--a deceit that turns heroism into just another victimizer of a gay man's heart.

As Valentin, Anthony Crivello looks the part and can float a beautiful high pianissimo while standing in a crowded cell dreaming of life "Over the Wall." But he is given only one song, in the second act, "The Day After That," to establish the conditions that drove his character to radical solutions.

This would not be so hateful if the show's creators had been establishing his sincerity all along. Clearly, their hearts were elsewhere.

Except for one ill-advised Bird of Paradise costume, Rivera, 60, looks terrific in Florence Klotz's smart clothes and, although we all know the Broadway veteran is too old to be a gay window dresser's fantasy--even if he does have a mother fixation--she stands there with great style and looks ready for Bob Fosse to give her something to dance. So are we all.

Unfortunately, the choreographer is Vincent Paterson, a Broadway newcomer who directed Madonna's Blond Ambition tour, who is better at setting up flashy dance scenarios than developing dance ideas.

Prince is in his sweeping "Evita" period, which means everything moves--darkly--even if no one seems sure how much fun we're permitted to be having behind the grandiose men-behind-bars veneer. Kander and Ebb, who teamed with Prince for "Cabaret," have written a good score, punctuated by a returning percussive, electrified backbeat, as if prisoners were pounding on the bars.

McNally's book is full of bitchy little throwaways that ignore Valentin and particularize his colorful roommate. When Molina packs to leave the cell, he sighs and says, "I don't understand, I'm leaving with more than I came with!"

For all the spectacle and Carver's winning virtuosity, however, Puig's connections between sexual repression, totalitarianism and rebellion are sorely missed. We're left to sigh and romanticize Molina's fate in the most hackneyed Broadway context--you know, what he did for love. Unlike Molina's suitcase, this "Spider Woman" leaves us emptier than when we came in.

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