The much anticipated celebration of the works of Broadway's composer/lyricist team John Kander and the late Fred Ebb got off to a smashing start with a very impressive production of their Tony Award winning musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman," beginning at Signature Theatre in Shirlington this week.
This may not be too surprising given the history of Signature's work on musicals by the team, which dates back to 1995 when their "Cabaret" brought Steven Cupo a Helen Hayes Award for his performance as the Master of Ceremonies. The next year they produced Kander and Ebb's "The Rink," and both John Kander and Fred Ebb came to town to see it. They must have liked what they saw because, two years later, they were back with a brand new musical, "Over and Over," which they premiered at Signature.
Director Eric Schaeffer masses fabulous forces to mount the dark and disturbing, but ultimately humanity-affirming musical. It is based on Manuel Puig's novel of a Latin American revolutionary who shares a cell in a horror-filled prison with a gay man who withdraws into a fantasy world of musical movies in order to maintain his sanity in the face of torture and humiliation.
Bringing stars from Broadway to join with some very strong local performers, Schaeffer has built a cast that is strong from the star level to the supporting performers and the six men who are both the dancers in the movies in the prisoner's mind and the prisoners in the cells that encircle the one he shares with the revolutionary.
Hunter Foster plays the gay former window dresser imprisoned as a sexual deviant. Foster was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance on Broadway as Seymour in "Little Shop of Horrors" and originated the role of Bobby Strong in "Urinetown." Both of those roles required a light comedy touch, but the role here requires a strong dramatic ability and Foster displays all the depth and seriousness needed. His performance is the rock on which the success of the entire project is anchored.
He's not the only big name leading man from Broadway in the show, however.
THE REVOLUTIONARY who is shut up in the same cell with him is played by Will Chase, who has half a dozen starring roles to his credit in New York including stints as Radames in "Aida" and Chris in "Miss Saigon." His full voice and strong masculine presence is just right for this role as he booms out such impressive numbers as his big second act song "The Day After That."
The "Spider Woman" of the title is one of the roles of the movie star whose work forms the fantasy world into which the window dresser retreats when reality is too painful to bear. She's played with style by a slinky Natascia Diaz.
The other woman in the window dresser's life is his mother, played with simple honesty by Channez McQuay, whose song "You Could Never Shame Me" is heartfelt and lovely, and who shares another touching moment with Erin Driscol as the revolutionary's girl friend in a duet titled "Dear One," which then expands into a quartet with their men joining in.
Steven Cupo is back in a Kander and Ebb musical at Signature and he turns in a marvelous performance as the warden of the prison who uses torture and intimidation to get information from his prisoners. He manages to get all the evil of the part across without seeming to be a melodrama heavy expecting to hear hisses and boos from the audience.
The 250-seat theater called "The Max" provides an intimate experience of this very big and impressive musical. Adam Koch has designed a set that includes towering walls of prison cells flanking an area that at times is a single cell, at others a torture chamber and at still others a stage for dances from the movie musicals that mean so much to the tortured window dresser.
Jenny Cartney conducts a ten-member band in solid support of the entire cast and the music of John Kander is well served both instrumentally and vocally.
Fred Ebb's lyrics and Terrence McNally's script are just as well served dramatically by the performers.
The show is the first of three of Kander and Ebb's musicals which Signature will stage this spring. It will continue through April 20 while a new production of "The Happy Time" opens in the smaller, 100-seat theater called "The Ark." It runs from April 1 to June 1. Then Chita Rivera and George Hearn will star in "The Visit" from May 13 to June 22.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.