Harvard Law (Fall Musical) Review: Kiss of the Spider Woman

BY YVONNE TEW

Starring: Andrew Estes, Brad Rosen, Audrey Christopher

Producers: Andrew Estes & Ariel Fox

Director: David Joffe

Every fall, the Harvard Law Drama Society stages a musical. This fall, the Drama Society presented “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” The musical, with music by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and book by Terrence McNally, revolves around the relationship between Molina, a homosexual window dresser, and Valentin, a Marxist guerilla, in their prison cell.

Molina (Andrew Estes), in trying to explain his obsession with movies involving the Spider Woman, tells Valentin (Brad Rosen) that he needs the make-believe world of movies in order to “escape from reality.” It is a sentiment that the audience in a darkened theater room can identify with; we go to watch musicals to be transported to a different time and place and to have our senses intoxicated with imagery and music that makes us believe that we are – for a few hours – in a world not our own. Perhaps the greatest flaw of the Harvard Law Drama Society’s production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is that it was not quite able to reach this level of transcendence.

This does not mean that it was not a credible performance by a team of eager and industrious law students – it was; but, it remained simply that. Throughout the night, one was conscious of the fact that one was a spectator, firmly placed in the John Chipman Gray room, watching a group of enthusiastic students putting on a musical performance.

When asked what the musical was about, the student at the booth selling the tickets for the performance summarized it in a sentence: “It’s about two guys who are cell mates in a prison, and in order to break the monotony of prison, they entertain themselves by imagining gorgeous musical fantasies.” This synopsis is not too far from the truth. However, the underlying themes of political revolution, homosexual persecution, friendship and love combine to create a darker and more nuanced musical than its title initially suggests. Estes preens and swishes as the effeminate Molina. He is at his best in light numbers such as “Dressing Them Up”, where he achieves the right balance of sensitivity and campness, without the touch of theatrical caricature his character sometimes descends into.

Rosen gives one of the better performances in the production – in terms of both acting and vocal ability – as the aggressively male Valentin, although his character is not given much room by the script to develop beyond its macho stereotype.

The “Spider Woman,” with her kiss of death so feared by Molina, is played by Audrey Campbell, who comes across much better in actual presence on stage than as a disembodied voice from behind the scenes. The chorus was small, but clearly zealous and ambitious in putting on several songs and challenging dances.

One of the biggest hindrances to the production was probably the setting itself. One can imagine a musical like “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” with its interspersed scenes of glorious song and dance in dramatic theatrical style, being immensely effective in a Broadway setting, with larger than life sets and a glittering chorus aimed to create the illusion of fantasy for Mollina and Valentin. But, set in the John Chipman Gray room, one gets the sense that the musical was hampered by the cramped conditions of the stage.

The audience was so close that the cast frequently had to maneuver around those in the front row. It was perhaps inevitable that this resulted in there never being a sense of delineation between reality and the production despite the best efforts of the cast, leading to the uncomfortable sensation that one was at a musical with actors stepping at one’s toes, rather than being a completely engrossed spectator in a different world.

But, it is perhaps unfair to voice grievances from the luxury of one’s armchair (or, in this case, one’s seat in the John Chipman Gray room). The cast and crew clearly invested much time, energy and dedication into a difficult musical production, and credit should be given for their obvious love for the theater. There were scenes where one glimpsed the promise in the cast for a truly enjoyable performance: scenes such as “Russian Movie/Good Times” (which brought much needed light-heartedness to the show), “Dressing Them Up”, “Over the Wall III”, and the “Morphine Tango.” With more such scenes, and a better set, the “Kiss of the Spider Woman” could have been more seductive.

Rating: * *

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