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‘Spider Woman’ risky but ‘spectacular’

Posted: September 15th, 2017 | Arts & Entertainment, Theater Reviews, Top Story | No Comments

By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review

Friendship, love, betrayal and the distressing inhumanity of man all play out in a Latin American prison in the musical version of “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Welk Resorts Theatre presents the Kander and Ebb musical (based on the book by Manuel Puig, with play book by Terrence McNally) through Oct. 22 at the Escondido location.

This is risky programming for Welk, which is known for family fare of the type its namesake — conservative bandleader Lawrence Welk — would have approved.

(l to r) Jeffrey Scott Parsons as Molina and Richard Bermudez as Valentin share a tender moment (Photo by Daren Scott)

Joshua Carr, who has run the theater since 2009, has been experimenting with newer, hipper, edgier fare in hopes of attracting younger audiences.

“Spider Woman” is the latest example.

“Spider Woman” is set in “a Latin American prison, sometime in the recent past,” generally interpreted to be Argentina during the “Dirty War.” It is a love story between a gay window dresser, arrested for corrupting a minor, and a straight Marxist revolutionary, arrested for political reasons.

It’s an odd bird for a musical, not at all like Kander and Ebbs’ megahits “Chicago” and “Cabaret.”

It contains only a few memorable songs, has a choppy script with many short scenes, and contains depictions (and sounds) of torture — not your typical musical fare. So it’s up to the director and cast to sell it, and Welk veteran Ray Limon and his fine forces do just that.

Natali Nucci’s Spider Woman overtakes Molina’s fantasies. (Photo by Daren Scott)

Window dresser Molina (Jeffrey Scott Parsons) has a passion for old movies, many of which he has memorized, and likes to replay them in his mind — or, even better, describe them for an audience.

Molina’s fantasies are about Aurora (played with seductive, nearly irresistible panache by Natalie Nucci), who also plays the kill-with-a-kiss Spider Woman.

When Valentin (Richard Bermudez), the humorless Marxist (stereotype, anyone?) is tossed into Molina’s cell, there’s an instant chill in the air as Molina immediately strikes up a conversation and Valentin draws a line across the cell, ordering Molina to shut up and stay on his side.

But slowly, Molina and Valentin come to realize that they not only like, but also need each other, if they hope to stay alive in (or leave) this dehumanizing place.

Molina and Valentin share a jail cell in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” (Photo by Daren Scott)

Prisoner survival is not high on the dance card of the Warden (played with conscience-free relish by Robert Hoyt). His mission is obtaining actionable information about other undesirables, and he does whatever it takes to get it.

Limon’s fine, athletic choreography makes this grim topic much easier to watch. The prisoners dance behind (sometimes almost with) the bars they’re penned in by; Aurora dances on an upper-level ramp and uses the stairs in provocative ways; the Spider Woman dances before an evocative, projected web.

This show really belongs to the three principals, and they are all spectacular. Parsons brings commitment and a lovely tone. I confess to a weakness for the power and the beauty of Bermudez’s voice; and Nucci is a fine singer and spectacular dancer.

And Justin Gray’s orchestral forces (four) are up to all the challenges.

Bravo to Jennifer Edwards and Patrick Hoyny, who add splash and mystery with their lighting and sound design.

Kudos also to Lisa Dyson and Kylie Molnar, excellent in their parts as Molina’s mother and Valentin’s girlfriend Marta, respectively.

“Kiss of the Spider Woman” is an unusual piece, not often performed. Here’s your chance to see a fine production of another Kander and Ebb show.

—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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