Chicago + Kiss of the Spider Woman

Two jailhouse musicals that mirror each other.

Pop Quiz: What musical created in the 1970’s centers on a pair of prison inmates who dream of life on the outside and team up to beat the system? If you said either “Chicago” or “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” you’d be right, and last week, both shows were on in Portland: “Chicago,” a Broadway Across America production, breezed through for a brief run, but Triangle Productions’ “Spider” will hang around for the rest of the month.

Terra McCleod as Velma.

Terra McCleod as Velma.

“Chicago” gives the ol’ flim-flam flummox.

Last week, the touring production of “Chicago” cat-walked into the Keller, fronted by a “Seinfeld” star and a “30 Rock” alum. In the current dramatic climate, “Chicago” has every reason to “razzle dazzle”: The 2002 film version still sparkles in the rearview mirror. TV show “Orange is the New Black” has just brought new heat to lady inmate characters. “The Great Gatsby,” revived on film by luminary Baz Luhrman and locally slated in Bag ‘n’ Baggage’s fall season, has upped the ante for natty 1920’s fashion trappings. Okay, “Chicago,” pepper our ragú…

…or don’t? Those who expected to be floored by gorgeous fedoras and fringe, or hissed into submission by sizzling Fosse moves, may have been a bit disappointed by this production. Thanks to a “wardrobe supervisor” in place of a costume designer, clothes were generic, all-black, and off-the-rack, with no—I repeat, NO—complete costume changes. Ann Reinking’s classic choreography also seemed to have suffered in David Bushman’s translation. Though many sequences had the usual Fosse flair, Velma’s solos were manic and jerky, and many scenes—including Mama’s solo and the first half of the closing number—left characters planted awkwardly in one spot. The band, seated on risers onstage, served as the only backdrop besides a tinsel curtain which didn’t appear til the closing number. While its proponents would undoubtedly sell this minimalist treatment as Brechtian and sleek, it felt more budgetary and bleak. You know you’re in an economic downturn when even Broadway doesn’t feel big.

Gallingly, wardrobe and choreo’s oversimplicity often caused clashes between script and action. “Shimmy til my garters break,” cued neither shimmying nor garters. At “spread eagle,” dancers crossed their arms and recoiled rather than stretching. The mixed signals seemed to break faith with the Fosse tradition of overt gestures that support the script so explicitly they verge on mime, as when Roxie and Amos fret about money and the chorus boys make a pocket-emptying gesture, or when the girls sing “we want Billy” while coitally up-thrusting their hips. (No mixed messages there…why anywhere?)

Roxie, played by Paige Davis, was warm and self-assured, with a pleasing vocal timbre. Sympathetic storytelling seems to come naturally to Davis—not surprising as she’s also a book author. A crackerjack comic, she stuck her impersonations of a crushed butterfly and a cross-eyed marionette, glamor-be-damned. Velma (Terra C. McLeod) was, by comparison, brittle—surprising considering her tenure in this role, but perhaps a conscious choice? Her voice was a bit nasal and her dancing—though more acrobatically demanding than Davis’s—was less graceful. Velma’s declared “dance of desperation” really did feel that way, and her detached demeanor made it easy to believe the assessment that, “nothing’s ever personal.” But even assuming McLeod played her part less appealingly on purpose to help Roxie outshine Velma as per the script, the choice could be up for review. Audiences prefer Velma to show off the sparkle that put her in Vaudeville, more than the rust that makes her co-star begrudge her a comeback.

Carol Woods, as Matron “Mama” Morton, had a powerhouse voice and beautiful sustain, but didn’t even touch the bawdy sexual undertone that her solo number, “When You’re Good To Mama,” demands. In a full-coverage black pantsuit, with zero dance moves, she was more church lady or even FIRST lady, than sexually-charged, corrupt she-warden. On the other hand, John O’Hurley (probably best known from his recurring Seinfeld role as J. Peterman) made a show-saving turn as Roxie’s attorney Billy with the perfect rat-pack demeanor: equal parts cavalier and exacting. The “Dancing With the Stars” vet sashayed through his scenes, turning on a dime between his character’s two conflicting mottos: “All I care about is love,” and “Play square.” With witty quips, Billy was even able to make light of the production’s bare-bleachers staging, especially as he pushed past the conductor and zinged, “You know, if you get yourself a real instrument, they give you a chair.”

Another standout was über-nerd Todd Buonopane (“30 Rock”‘s Jeffrey Weinerslav) as Roxy’s long-suffering chubby hubby Amos. Fawning over Roxie with endearingly misplaced hope, he melted into a near-spectral performance of “Mr. Cellophane.” His main dance move was simple enough, a peculiar sway done entirely by weight-shifting with straight knees while the feet stayed planted (think the Hasbro weeble-wobble, or Michael Jackson’s lean). The effect, though, was instant hypnosis, with Buonopane’s whole body becoming a tilting pendulum that made us so, so sleepy….

Mary Sunshine was—spoiler alert—played by (cis-male; trans?) soprano D. Micciche, who doffed a wig in the second act for a big (hilarious?) reveal. This would’ve been a more welcome novelty if the rest of the actor’s performance had passed muster; but after Micciche underperformed, it just seemed gimmicky. Exaggerating vocal vibrato with a quivering lower lip for added emphasis, Sunshine rendered the lyrics of “A Little Bit of Good” so unintelligible that no jokes could land—in fact, the character didn’t get one laugh til scenes later, when Billy kissed her hand.

By the second act, the homogeny of the staging became especially tiresome, and the all-black wardrobe with the odd wink of a sequin felt decidedly less elegant than funereal. Mention of Roxie wearing a blue dress to court was not corroborated by her actual costume, a black blazer sans-pants. The economy of ensemble dancers also began to distract before crescendoing into a complete scene-stealer. It was enough of a stretch (though I know it’s standard) for the cast to wear jazzy black undies to portray convicts; but it was nearly impossible to accept them as court reporters in their S&M skivvies. Inexplicably, nine of the chorus line formed a press corps, while a lone chorister played “the jury.” And most inexcusably, the actress who played Hunyak (Naomi Kakuk) was resurrected moments after her character’s onstage execution to (anonymously?) prance through the foreground of the next scene. These and other choices made the backing cast look pitifully short-staffed.

For much of the closing number, Velma and Roxie stood eerily—not simmeringly—still. And even then…no costume change.

Did this “Chicago” have its moments? Absolutely. But it also fell short of certain Broadway-level expectations of pageantry, precision, and vision. Moving on….

“Kiss of the Spider Woman” goes above and beyond.

Imagine there’s a formula for theatrical excellence: delivery divided by expectation. Touring Broadway shows would naturally start with a daunting denominator, while local productions at hole-in-the-wall venues would have a lower hurdle to jump. Either kind of show could be considered excellent, as long as it exceeded expectations.

The Spider Woman (Boulé) both beguiles and terrifies Molina (Ryan). Said Boulé of the dynamic, "Besides death...she represents sexuality...and he's afraid of that."

The Spider Woman (Boulé) both beguiles and terrifies Molina (Ryan). Said Boulé of the dynamic, “Besides death…she represents sexuality…and he’s afraid of that.”

Triangle Productions “Kiss of the Spider Woman” immediately leaps above and beyond with agile acting, strong song and dance, lovely costumes, and an expressive backstage orchestra. With a split-level stage, Don Horn and co. have maximized the potential of the theater space, and the cast is a near embarrassment of beauty and talent. Lead actors Bobby Ryan, Nicholas Rodriguez, and Margie Boulé are all standouts, in many ways on par with their Broadway counterparts last week in “Chicago.” Ryan as Molina is a riveting presence with a contagious pathos, and Boulé as Aurora, Mother, and Spider Woman, shows unbelievable range. (And yes—she is THAT Margie Boulé, one of a growing cadre of still-active former Oregonian columnists, just like ArtsWatch’s Marty, Bob and Barry).

“Kiss,” set in Buenos Aires in the 70’s, centers on two prison inmates: Molina (Bobby Ryan), an apolitical gay idealist who fantasizes about old Hollywood movies, and Valentin (Nicholas Rodriguez), a semi-militant Marxist. This pair nearly mirrors “Chicago”‘s duo, Roxie and Velma. Both pairs of characters seem to embody innocence versus experience, but those traits shift position over the course of each show. Incidental similarities between Portland’s two stagings are also uncanny. Actors playing Valentin and Velma are both reprising their roles, while Molina and Roxie’s respective actors both moonlight as authors. What cements “Chicago” as satire and “Kiss” as melodrama, is their diametrical opposition on the matter of justice. In “Chicago,” the protagonists are guilty, yet they get set free, and that’s celebrated. In “Kiss,” we suspect the suspects may be innocent, but they’re ultimately detained, and it’s lamented. Both propositions are cynical, but only “Chicago” gleefully roots for the baddies, even announcing, “we hold [deviant behavior] dear to our hearts.” “Kiss”‘s sympathies remain with its tortured underdogs, especially the incurably romantic and sacrificially loyal Molina, who in some ways is less like Roxy and more like the lovelorn “Mr. Cellophane,” Amos.

Each show has a patriarch of sorts; in “Chicago” it’s Billy, and in “Kiss,” a misanthropic Warden (Ron Harman). But where “Chicago” has Mama and arguably Mary Sunshine as matrons, “Kiss” has a holy trinity—three matron characters in one—all embodied by veteran actor and former Oregonian writer Margie Boulé. Boulé plays the titular Spider Woman, a seductive specter of death lurking in the rafters in a black lace dress. She’s also Molina’s aging mother, a nurturing ally in a camel-hair coat who comforts her sensitive son. And she’s Aurora, a melodramatic silver screen actress a la Gloria Swanson, who replays her best scenes in Molina’s memory. Somewhat stereotypically, former window dresser Molina dreams of comfort in the bosom of grande dames, envisioning both Freedom and Death as—well, fierce, in the fashion sense of the word. And boy, does Boulé fill that bill, swooping onto the stage from all sides, changing her vocal timbres and wigs with equal ease. Unlike “Chicago”‘s Mama, the 62-year-old Boulé fully inhabits her body, oozing sensuality and beaming optimism where appropriate. Her command of the stage is actually closer to Billy’s.ensemb_margie

The dance numbers, deftly maneuvered onto a small stage by choreographer Sara Mishler Martins, are nonetheless dynamic for it.  The orchestra, led by Jon Quesenberry, hits not only the right notes but the right emotional tones throughout Jon Kander and Fred Ebb’s nuanced aural vermouth of xylophone arpeggios, bongo drums, creepy chromatic trills of flute, and swoons of violin. The songs themselves range from Latin (“Dressing Them Up” is a tango; “Gimme Love,” cumbia; “Morphine Tango,” vaguely Brazilian) to frontier, often evoking other musicals. “Over the Wall,” for example, is a thoughtful pause in wide-open fourths that could carpetbag into “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” or “Westside Story” with equal ease. “Kiss”‘s songbook is exploratory, and a style-borrower—just like the story’s central character Molina and his beloved Old Hollywood. With less immediate resonance than the cohesive, commanding jazz canon of “Chicago,” “Kiss”‘s eclectic record collection might take more time to grow on you.

It could be said that “Kiss” has pacing problems. The first act, gorged with a surfeit of songs, is almost three times as long as the second. Though all of that action is technically set in prison, Molina’s escapist fantasies yield varied scenes, affording consummate entertainer Boulé plenty of time for spidery slinking, glamorous promenading, and innocent mincing around the stage as her various characters. (Which gait is truest? A limp she allows while playing Mother but otherwise suppresses. She injured her knee during rehearsals.) To be fair, after this luxurious lull, the rapid acceleration of the second act DOES ratchet up the drama—and maybe that’s all by design.

At this point, a discussion of which jailhouse musical to catch in Portland becomes moot; “Chicago” hits Eugene tonight, and Boise later this week. If you’re in those towns and have the means, definitely go see the talent—but expect the costumes and choreo to knock you back onto Netflix. For Portlanders, good news: “Kiss” runs for the rest of the month, and it’s truly captivating.

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A. L. Adams also writes monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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