By Jennifer Mustoe (with Mike Smith)
I have seen many of the professional productions in Utah, and California and Broadway, for that matter. When I say that UT Rep’s Kiss of the Spider Woman is of the finest same caliber, I realize the magnitude of what I am saying.
No, they don’t have a large set like big money companies have. But in the space they have, at the Sorenson Unity Center Black Box Theater in Salt Lake City, their large spiderweb in the middle and movable bars that go from the front to the back of the platform are perfectly fine.
And let me say the word perfect right now and just know that this is the word I will use throughout this review. Kiss of the Spider Woman is as near perfect as I can imagine. In speaking with director Johnny Hebda after the show, he said that he knows he gathered a remarkably able and talented cast, but he expected perfection from them, and the result is an amazing performance. Because I was in UT Rep’s first production, Side Show, which Hebda directed, I know him to be a firm but inspiring director.
The show itself is lovely–if you can call a horrible Argentina prison in 1975 lovely. But the messages of love, friendship, loyalty, and redemption are poignant and remarkable. Valentin (Juan Periera), a revolutionary imprisoned for seditious behavior, is put into a cell with Molina (equity actor Kenneth Wayne), a “queen”, whose homosexual behavior and obsession with movies that star Aurora drive Valentin to hatred. (Molina was in prison for being inappropriate with a minor.) Aurora’s movies are a motif–Molina uses his memories of these movies to block out the horror of the prison. He describes the movies to Valentin, and this system of avoidance gradually calms Valentin, and a friendship between the two men begins to form. Molina’s care and love finally win over Valentin, and the result is heart-breaking and beautiful.
The ensemble consists of prisoners, wardens, Gabriel (a friend of Molina’s from his pre-prison days), Casey Matern as Molina’s Mother, and Karli Rose Lowry as Valintin’s sweetheart, Marta. I spoke to one of the prisoners after the show and said, “You were great, in that you didn’t stand out.” Hebda wisely used the prisoners as a moving background, in sync and uniform.
Erin Royall Carlson plays Aurora/The Spider Woman. She appears throughout the show, sometimes as The Spider Woman, and sometimes as whatever character Aurora plays in movies. When movies are being performed, there is also a movie playing above the set. This wasn’t needed and I mostly forgot it was there. It isn’t needed because what is happening onstage is electrifying.
The three: Periera, Wayne, and Carlson are as about perfect performers as I’ve ever seen. As I watched the show, I actually was leaning forward, as if I could absorb even more of what was happening onstage. I am not sure I can even describe it. The music! The costumes! The dancing! Honestly, there was very few flaws.
Music Director Anne Puzey, in charge of the uber talented singers and the live band, has created a marvelous musical experience for the audience. Apparently, the original score had 30+ instruments, and Puzey pared it down to perfection to five instruments. I can’t even imagine how a larger orchestra is needed. The band is to the right of the stage and the sound is just right. Not too loud or too soft. Sometimes the music can drown out the singers and such was not the case here.
Costume Designer Michael Nielson did a fantastic job. The Spider Woman’s sexy black outfit, complete with fishnets, was dazzling. But all her costumes as The Spider Woman and Aurora were over the top amazing, too. I especially liked the be-feathered skirt for “Morphine Tango.” Very fun. Very Chita Rivera. Molina’s costumes, all about scarves and a lovely robe, were poignantly and pathetically sweet. He lives in a prison, after all, but has managed to get a variety of lovely costumed pieces, including a tiara and very dangly, gaudy earrings. His diamond ring sparkles when nothing else in the prison does.
Except Molina himself, played achingly amazing by Kenneth Wayne. Molina does much of his story in song, and Wayne’s strong, sweet voice is perfect for the role. His acting, too, was powerful to the point that it hurt.
Juan Periera’s Valentin is also beautiful to the point of pain. His loyalty to his cause, his humility as he learns to trust and then to love Molina, his aching for his sweetheart Marta are lovely and emotional to experience. I use the word experience here, simply because I was so caught up in the show, I didn’t just watch it. I was immersed in it.
Erin Royall Carlson is stunning. She was so true to her character and her voice is so powerful and her dancing so sexy and athletic and beautiful–well, she needs to be seen to be believed. She sings while lying down dying (as Aurora.) She is LYING DOWN and still can belt out her notes.
Choreographer Ashley Gardner-Carlson created an energetic and inspiring panorama of movement. When the prisoners were onstage, even though some had solo performances, they worked as a whole and it was very effective. I was exhausted after some of the numbers–those men never stopped moving and it was all very athletic and graceful.
The stand out number for me musically was “Dear One” with Molina, his Mother, Valentin, and his sweetheart Marta. These four never missed a note. The harmonies were inspired. I’d have preferred to see some movement in this number, but understand why Hebda blocked it the way he did, with all performers standing still, and the loved ones on opposite sides (Mother and Valentin on one side, Marta and Molina on the other.)
My only real criticism of the show is that it is quite long. It seemed like the first act would never end. And this is only a criticism because I needed a break to catch my breath and calm down a little. Seriously, this show transfixed me so much I was sort of over-wrought, but I mean this in the most complimentary of ways.
Note: this show is not for children. Hebda wisely did not overplay the violence, but there is a lot–this is a prison in South America. There is some homosexual behavior, but it is very understated. There is some profanity. That being said, I don’t believe this show would be inappropriate for theater-loving teenagers who would like to see something intense, beautiful, and flawless. It is a lesson in outstanding theater. And of course, adults shouldn’t miss this show.
Kiss of the Spider Woman by UT Repertory Company
April 21st to May 7th 7:30 PM $17-$20