"Kiss of the Spider Woman," the big Broadway musical about torture and death, opened at the Ahmanson Theatre on Saturday night. Adapted by Terrence McNally from Manuel Puig's novel, the show tells the story of an unlikely friendship in a brutal Argentine prison. Valentin (Dorian Harewood) is a revolutionary who learns begrudging respect and love for his seemingly trivial cellmate, a gay window dresser named Molina (Juan Chioran), who in turn learns courage and grace.
"Spider Woman" is a gritty, grim and sometimes pretentious musical, but these qualities seem to inspire director Hal Prince, who creates striking stage pictures from a prison's fearsome ironworks. An intricate grid of silver bars fills the entire stage, at times shrinking cinematically down to a tiny, tight cell.
As the title arachnid, Chita Rivera is splendiferous. She plays Aurora, the glamorous star whose movie scenes Molina recalls to drown out the sounds of torture. She also metamorphoses into Spider Woman, sleek messenger of death. Her shimmies and high kicks are perfection, but she's also thrilling in small ways--witness the bob of her Louise-Brooks-helmeted head when she is held aloft by four bare-chested dancers in one of several excellent production numbers (by Vincent Paterson and Rob Marshall). Numbers like these are by definition escapist--that they are performed here as a prisoner's fantasy amid horrible brutality lends them a weird sheen that is "Spider Woman's" hallmark.
Chioran is the show's heart as the willowy window dresser with saucer eyes and eloquent hands and wrists. As the humorless revolutionary, Harewood sings very well but cannot break through the cardboard-cutout nature of this thankless role.
The visually spiffy touring production (designer: Jerome Sirlin) is every bit as good as the one that played on Broadway, and it is exactly the same production recently seen in Orange County and Pasadena. Under the musical direction of Rob Bowman, the John Kander and Fred Ebb score sounds solid and acoustically much better balanced than it was in the larger Orange County Performing Arts Center.
* "Kiss of the Spider Woman," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends April 21. $15-$65. (213) 365-3500, (213) 480-3232, (714) 740-2000. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.