Terrified prisoner seeks help from cinematic heroine

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Molina (Scott Hunt, left) has an uneasy relationship with cellmate Valentin (Joe Joseph), a leftist revolutionary, in Short North Stage’s production of Kiss of the Spider Woman (photo by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Molina prefers fantasy to reality. Small wonder: As a gay man living in a South American dictatorship in the 1970s, he’s too shy and scared to act on his romantic desires.

One of his fantasies involves his fevered friendship with Gabriel, a straight man who can’t give him the love he craves. Mostly, though, his fantasies revolve around Aurora, a movie star who embodies the feminine grace and beauty he tries to re-create in his job as a department-store window dresser.

Then Molina is thrown into prison on the trumped-up charge of making advances on an underage male. It soon becomes evident he’s being pressured by the warden to glean information out of Valentin, the leftist revolutionary who shares his cell. After avoiding reality all his life, Molina suddenly finds himself in a horrifying dilemma that not even fantasies of his beloved Aurora can block out.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is based on a novel by Manuel Puig that previously inspired a 1983 stage play and a 1985 movie starring William Hurt and Raul Julia. The stage musical—with book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb—opened on Broadway in 1993 and won that year’s Tony for best musical.

After seeing the film, the play and the musical, I still find the film the most moving interpretation of the story. But Short North Stage’s production of the musical, directed by Michael Licata (who also helmed 2015’s wonderful A Little Night Music), is impressive on several levels.

Scott Hunt gives a relatable portrayal of the in-over-his-head Molina and backs it up with a beautiful singing voice. Joe Joseph is macho but vulnerable as Valentin and also displays strong pipes, especially in an Act 1 lament about Marta, the woman he loves.

As Aurora, the movie star who dominates Molina’s fantasies, Eli Brickey often is required to sing while swinging (upside down, even) from a suspended sash. Though she aces this dizzying task, at other times her breathy voice seems stretched by the role’s vocal demands. She also projects less glamour than one would expect from such a fantasy figure, though she has no trouble projecting a satirical take on glamour, as she does during a Betty Boop-style number in Act 2.

Movie queen Aurora (Eli Brickey) performs with dancers (from left) Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe, Kevin Ferguson and Patrick Carmichael. (photo by Jason Allen)
Movie queen Aurora (Eli Brickey) performs with dancers (from left) Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe, Kevin Ferguson and Patrick Carmichael. (photo by Jason Allen)

Key supporting roles are nicely handled by Todd Covert as the manipulative warden; Alex Armesto and Amari Ingram as the abusive prison guards; James Schoppe as Molina’s friend, Gabriel; Danielle Grays as the sexy but unreliable Marta; and Linda Kinnison Roth as Molina’s loving mother.

Visually, the production boasts a weathered-looking two-story set designed by Jason Bolen. Though not lit as dramatically as it might be by Adam Zeek, it allows the action to skip effortlessly between terrifying reality and the musical fantasy sequences that represent the inner workings of Molina’s troubled mind.

Speaking of those fantasy sequences, they benefit from Edward Carignan’s playful and sometimes kitschy choreography and are ably accompanied by musical director Philip Brown Dupont and his mighty backstage band.

As a final bonus, every word of dialogue and lyrics comes through clearly, not the easiest feat in the Garden Theater’s acoustically challenging auditorium.

Add all this to the fact that this is the area premiere of Kander and Ebb’s award-winning work, and the show becomes a top priority for fans of musical theater.

Short North Stage will present Kiss of the Spider Woman through Nov. 20 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$42. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

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Buffalo pals prepare to let it all hang out

Unemployment turns factory workers into strippers in The Full Monty (photo by Heather Wack)
Unemployment turns factory workers into strippers in The Full Monty (photo by Heather Wack)

By Richard Ades

How desperate would you need to be to go onstage and bare it all before a few hundred friends and strangers?

The men in The Full Monty are plenty desperate, having lost their jobs when the local steel mill closed down. Some are afraid they’re going to lose even more if they don’t find work soon.

Adapted by Terrence McNally from the 1997 film, the musical version of The Full Monty relocates the action from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, N.Y., and adds melodies and lyrics by David Yazbeck. But the basic situation remains the same.

For some of the characters, their very manhood feels threatened by the role reversals they’ve experienced since losing their jobs. After being the main breadwinners throughout their marriages, they now find themselves relying on their wives to bring home the paycheck.

The central protagonist, Jerry (David Bryant Johnson), has an even more basic worry. He’s separated from his wife (Jackie Comisar) and fears he’ll lose joint custody of his son (Kyle Klein II) if he doesn’t find a way to pay up on his child support.

For Jerry and the others, all of this adds up to more than enough reason to throw caution (and their clothes) to the wind by staging a striptease act that goes the Chippendales one better by climaxing in full frontal nudity.

Though the men’s emotional stress is well expressed in McNally’s script and Yazbeck’s catchy tunes, it doesn’t come across as well as it could in Short North Stage’s production. This is largely due to the central relationship between Jerry and his weight-obsessed friend, Dave (John McAvaney). Johnson’s Jerry is more laid back than one might expect for someone in his situation, while McAvaney plays Dave as a goofy sidekick.

Perhaps director/choreographer Edward Carignan decided to keep things light to find the laughs inherent in the characters’ situation, but “light” mostly comes off as simply “bland.” A bit more gritty reality is needed to sustain our interest in a tale that demands nearly three hours of our time.

On the other hand, little needs to be added in terms of music, movement or spectacle. Other than some songs and scenes that end in an awkwardly anticlimactic fashion, the production excels on all three fronts.

Johnson has a particularly nice voice, and the rest of the cast sings serviceably, at least, and often beautifully. Backing them up, music director Jeff Caldwell leads a band that is equally adept at the jazzy overture, the bluesy Big Black Man and the pretty You Rule My World.

Carignan’s choreography is fun and funny, particularly in a number (Michael Jordan’s Ball) that mimics basketball moves. Just as impressive is Dick Block’s set design, which features weathered interiors and exteriors that roll in and out of sight with dazzling efficiency.

Linda Kinnison  Roth as Jeanette Burmeister (photo by Heather Wack)
Linda Kinnison Roth as Jeanette Burmeister (photo by Heather Wack)

Along with all its other strengths, the production boasts two supporting players who are comedic standouts: Linda Kinnison Roth as veteran rehearsal pianist Jeanette Burmeister and R. Lawrence Jenkins as would-be stripper Noah “Horse” T. Simmons.

Two additional supporting players make indelible impressions playing spouses. Gina Handy combines a healthy libido with loving patience as Dave’s wife, Georgie. And as Vicki, wife of laid-off efficiency expert Harold (Ian Short), Danielle Grays kicks out all the stops on the Latin-flavored number Life With Harold.

Finally, something needs to be said for Adam Zeek’s lighting, which allows the show to live up to its name without becoming excessively graphic. Thanks to split-second timing, the inevitable male nudity is glimpsed just long enough to assure us that Jerry and his Buffalo pals do, indeed give us the “full monty.”

Short North Stage will present The Full Monty through April 24 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.