note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Beverly Creasey
Just about every theater in town is presenting a musical this season, making it almost impossible to see all of them but this musical fan certainly is going to try.
The SpeakEasy Stage Company is bringing the great big Broadway hit, KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, to their Calderwood space in the Boston Center for the Arts and the good news is that KISS works just fine there. It turns out you don’t need a big theater to tell Manuel Puig’s harrowing story of torture and political prisoners. The Kander and Ebb musical takes on intensity when you can see the whites –and black and blues—of their eyes.
What a cast director Paul Daigneault has assembled. It attests to SpeakEasy’s consistent quality, that several of Boston’s leading actors signed on for KISS in secondary roles: Sean McGuirk gives a chilling performance as the cold blooded warden; Christopher Chew and Will McGarrahan portray gaunt prisoners (among other intense roles) barely surviving under inhumane conditions.
John King is an elegant Molina, the window dresser jailed for being homosexual in this fictional, repressive Latin American dictatorship. Terrence McNally’s script for the musical doesn’t specify when this is, or where the prison is, nor does he point out parallels with Nazism, but the message comes through.
Brendan McNab is the fiery revolutionary who shares Molina’s cell (in Eric Levenson’s looming prison set). He bitterly resents the man’s reliance on fantasy over reality. Christine A. Maglione (who looks a lot like Chita Rivera, the original Spider Woman) is the window dresser’s salvation, the movie star whose films he replays in his mind to escape the everyday horror. Maglione carries herself like an old time movie queen and shows her considerable comic talents in the hilarious Russian film sequence. King and McNab bring poignance to the story of their growing affection for each other. They are every prisoner, past and present, and yet they are utterly contemporary, one of Daigneault’s nifty tricks in the SpeakEasy production.
Music director Paul S. Katz gets wonderful singing from the entire ensemble, giving KISS an operatic feel. It’s central dilemma –‘Will Molina betray his cellmate for his own freedom?’—is certainly the stuff of grand opera. What SpeakEasy does for the musical is to up the ante in the suspense department while it’s focusing in on the unlikely friendship between the two men.
Lionel Bart’s Dickensian musical, OLIVER, never seems to lose its punch. Children’s theaters love to do it, although it’s a bit scary, in my opinion, for the little ones. Large and small theaters alike embrace its message of redemption and reform-- but it’s not often you find a well-oiled production like the Orpheum Theatre’s OLIVER, playing through next weekend. The Bay Colony production casts talented children in the orphan roles and some fine local actors in the principal roles, making a solid professional mix.
Director Steve Dooner keeps the comedy quite broad (The audience laps it up) and the serious social issues, quite serious. He’s aided in this aim by solid veteran actors like Bill Stambaugh, who is downright terrifying as the evil Bill Sykes. Chrissy Fresco, as Bill Sykes’ battered girlfriend, pulls off quite a coup, making her case for putting up with abuse. In most productions of OLIVER, the Nancy role is problematic for modern post feminist audiences but Fresco makes it work. It doesn’t hurt, either, that her singing is delicious.
Sean Gearin is a winning Oliver, with a sweet singing voice --and I should add that the children were all on key, something which isn’t true of many OLIVER productions…so kudos to musical director Robert J. Goldman. Sam Wartenberg, a dynamo who nearly stole the show as The Artful Dodger, is a triple threat: singing, acting and dancing to equal the adults.
The heart and soul of the musical, however, is Fagin, the pied piper of melodramatic juvenile delinquents. Nathan Lamont gives an extraordinary performance as the master thief who exploits, and at the same time, delights in his pint-sized charges. Fagin has the best songs and the most lively scenes, teaching novices the art of picking pockets, shooing them off to “work” and “Reviewing [his] Situation.” Watching Lamont and the wee criminals cavort, you’re almost convinced crime could pay. Well, scene stealing, anyway.
Lots of fun performances, and a crackerjack set (by Daniel Kozar and Michael Teixiera), make this OLIVER a pleasure. Chris DiOrio and Laura DesMarais have a grand time as the most peculiar of sweethearts. DiOrio has the best Dickens quip, that the “Law” knows nothing of marriage because the “Law” is a “bachelor.” The only miss in the whole production is the overly gestural choreography, which tends toward the literal rather than the figurative (an “eye” for an “I” etc.), although it was executed masterfully by the children---a small hitch to be sure in a joyous, feel good production.