The extraordinary quality of Kiss of the Spider Woman belies the eight-year gap since Melbourne Theatre Company produced a Broadway musical as part of their mainstage season. The dark, dazzling adult musical achieves the magical synergy that occurs when creative collaboration and stellar performances coalesce for a whole that is greater than the not inconsiderable sum of its parts.
Adapting the Manuel Puig novel, composers John Kander and Fred Ebb and book writer Terrence McNally took musical theatre to the heretofore unimaginable setting of a brutal Argentinian prison. Newly imprisoned revolutionary Valentin is introduced to the elaborate flights of fancy of cellmate Molina, a gay window dresser who vividly recreates the movies of glamorous diva Aurora in his mind. An uneasy relationship develops between the two men as they depend on each other to survive the psychological and physical torture of the Warden, driven to capture Valentin’s cohorts.
Working with supreme confidence, flair and insight, director Dean Bryant brings out the very best in his creative collaborators and skims the cream of local musical talent to assemble a supremely talented cast, almost all of whom are making their Melbourne Theatre Company debuts. Bryant does not shy from the bleak, dark grit of the setting, successfully drawing the full humanity of the characters in the march to a tragic yet ultimately uplifting conclusion.
Choreographer Andrew Hallsworth delivers what is arguably his best work to date, providing not just spectacular dance, but working with such imagination to have the moves magically derive from the prison setting. Hallsworth and Bryant’s close working relationship allows them to conjure an integrated blend of drama and dance, in which even the sets and props dance magically into place. Hallsworth’s pièce de résistance comes in the title song “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” in which Aurora is grandly carried overhead, while at stage level, lovemaking is exquisitely represented in dance.
Rising musical director Jack Earle provides slick orchestrations for himself on keys and four fellow musicians: Darryn Farrugia, Susannah Ng, Patrick Schmidli and Paul Zabrowarny. Earle’s musical preparation is pristine, and is heard at its best in the clarion sound design of Nick Walker.
Alicia Clements’ set design is on a grand scale, all the cleverer for its hidden tricks. A grimy two-level prison interior gives a suitably oppressive vibe that lifts away in musical numbers. A key aspect to the impact of these transitions is the first-rate lighting design of Matt Scott, along with the subtle use of projections by Jamie Clennett. In the wide stage space, Scott creates Valentin and Molina’s cramped cell with a tight square of light. Embedded lighting in the set creates extra sparkle in the dream sequences.
Clements has fun switching between grit and glamour in the costumes; helmets switch from dull to sparkling in the blink of any eye. Movie star Aurora sports an impossibly glamorous wardrobe, with a fabulous new wig for each outfit.
A Kander & Ebb specialist if there ever was one, Caroline O’Connor gives an iconic performance as the exotic Aurora, performing a dazzling range of styles to showcase Aurora’s screen career. A veteran of the world stage, O’Connor creates allure and appeal, even though the book provides nothing of Aurora as an actual person. In particularly strong voice, O’Connor brings a depth of expression to the songs, and sings unfailingly even when in a range of contortions and lifts. O’Connor’s gift for comedy comes to the fore as act two commences with “Russian Movie” / “Good Times.”
Having come to attention in the heartthrob title role of Aladdin, charismatic young actor Ainsley Melham reveals a far greater depth of talent with his blistering performance as Molina. Melham’s achievement begins with playing an openly gay window dresser without a hint of camp, and continues in his heartfelt, empathetic performance that draws the audience ever closer towards him. Finally, his gifts as a singing actor mean that he transitions flawlessly between dialogue and song, a valuable skill in this musical drama.
From beneath long hair and beard, Adam-Jon Fiorentino allows a guarded humanity to gradually be revealed in hard-bitten rebel Valentin. In a committed, well calibrated performance, Fiorentino brings verisimilitude to Valentin’s suffering and scheming, and enjoys strong chemistry with Melham.
Bert LaBonté gives the sadistic Warden a wickedly malevolent whisper. Natalie Gamsu brings an affecting depth of compassion to Molina’s Mother. In her highest profile role to date, gifted young actress Elandrah Eramiha brings glamorous mystery and lovely vocals to Valentin’s girlfriend, Marta. Smooth singing actor Ryan Gonzales is luxury casting indeed as Molina’s object of affection, waiter Gabriel.
The ensemble cast is completed by terrific triple threats Jakob Ambrose, Blake Appelqvist, Joe Gaudion and Lyndon Watts.
Balancing intense drama with lavish production numbers, Kiss of the Spider Woman has abundant appeal for regular playgoers as well as lovers of musical theatre. Opening night was greeted by a full standing ovation, a feat sure to repeated throughout the season.
Kiss of the Spider Woman plays at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne until 28 December 2019.
The Kiss of the Spider Woman program can be read online.
Photos: Jeff Busby