Pretty Powerful Poison

Molina and Valentin are as different as night and day.  Molina is a flamboyant homosexual imprisoned for corrupting a minor.  Valentin is a young revolutionary full of piss and vinegar.  Yet an unlikely friendship grows between them which will be tested by a cruel warden.  And over all of this looms the specter of the Spider Woman in Kiss of the Spider Woman currently playing at the Barn Players.

Turning Manuel Puig’s heavily dramatic novel into a musical is certainly a tall order.  But Terrence McNally’s script combined with the incredible score of John Kander and Fred Ebb and the amazingly talented cast of the production makes for much much more than an effective musical.  It makes for one of the best shows I’ve seen in over 20 years of being involved with theatre.

Eric Magnus doesn’t miss a trick with a masterful piece of direction.  The staging is the strongest I’ve ever seen with Magnus’ cast making full use of Doug Schroeder’s simple and beautiful set of bars and stairs.  Magnus has pulled nearly perfect performances out of his entire cast and decisively navigates the multiple twists and turns of the plot with pinpoint accuracy.

Rarely have I seen a nuanced performance the likes of the one supplied by Joell Ramsdell as Molina.  As Molina, Ramsdell is unabashedly and unashamedly gay.  But his flamboyance covers a desperate loneliness.  All he wants is a friend.  He survives the hell of this prison by escaping into fantasy.  He thinks of his mother.  He fondly recalls the numerous movies he’s seen.  He remembers lavish musical numbers with his favorite actress, Aurora.  But he fears Aurora’s character of the Spider Woman who is Death incarnate and that character he often sees in his daily life.

The depth and range of Ramsdell’s acting is truly astonishing.  Starting off as a coward, he shows small signs of strength as he helps Valentin survive his imprisonment.  A strength that grows as his friendship with Valentin blossoms.  This leads to some of the show’s best scenes as Ramsdell shows the intense agony of a man forced to choose between his friend and his mother before making a choice that shows the meaning of courage.

Ramsdell also has a fabulous tenor which he adapts easily to comedy in “Dressing Them Up” or heart-wrenching drama in “Mama, It’s Me”.

Paul Brennan III matches Ramsdell step for step with his stirring rendering of Valentin.  Valentin is an angry revolutionary who fully believes in his cause and wants nothing to do with his new cellmate at first.  As he slowly accepts Molina’s friendship, Brennan beautifully evolves his character to show him capable of love, humor, and a bit of shocking Machiavellism.  Up until the end of the show, Valentin’s cause and desires still are the most important things in his life and he manipulates Molina’s feelings for him with an act that is both tender and selfish to get him to do what he wants.  But Molina’s choice at the play’s climax finally pushes Valentin to look beyond himself.

Brennan’s tenor will make your insides turn to jelly with a velvet voice that effortlessly knocks emotional pitches out of the park with numbers such as “Marta”, “Anything for Him” and “The Day After That”.

JC Dresslaer gets the show’s most interesting character in the form of Aurora/Spider Woman.  She’s mostly a fictional character in this world whose purpose is to help Molina, later Valentin, maintain sanity in the nightmare world in which they live.  But this allows her to do some brilliant character acting as she portrays Aurora’s various characters.  Most notably a wild rumba number (“Gimme Love”) to close out Act I and a hilarious piece of melodrama complete with over the top Russian accent to open Act II.

But Ms Dresslaer’s character of the Spider Woman haunts the world of the show with a most eerie reality and finality.  Dressed in a simple black dress, the Spider Woman exudes menace and, dare I say, gentleness with every appearance.  Yes, her appearances mean death, but she also wants to show that death is not something to be feared.

Ms Dresslaer’s dancing is so silky smooth, it makes all of her musical numbers showstoppers.  She also has a pitch-perfect alto used to excellent effect in “Come” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”.

I was extraordinarily impressed with the mileage Emerson Rapp got out of the role of the Warden.  It’s not a big role, but the evil which Rapp imbued into the character made sure the audience was spellbound each time he appeared on stage.  He clearly considers the prisoners animals suitable for torture and murder.  He will do anything and I mean ANYTHING to get what he wants.  Poisonings, beatings, emotional manipulation, bribery. . .it’s all fair game to one of the most insidious characters I’ve seen brought to life on stage.

Paul Secor Morrel and his orchestra deftly handle the varied score with an evening of precise instrumentation.  The costumes of Fran Kapono-Kuzila are well suited to the show from the tattered rags of the prisoners to Molina’s kimono and scarves to Aurora’s numerous costumes for her numbers.  The ensemble cast also stayed in every moment to add crucial life to the story as well as adding strong voices to the chorus.

Musicals often get flak for being shallow on substance, but Kiss of the Spider Woman proves that a musical can be just as challenging and deep as straight theatre if given a chance.  If you love great theatre then you need to go and see this show.  Then you need to tell others to go get a ticket so they can see this show as it deserves a sold out run.

Kiss of the Spider Woman plays at the Barn Players through October 2.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sun at 2pm. There will be an Industry Night performance on Sept 26. Tickets cost $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $12 for students (w/ID), and groups of 10 or more.  Industry Night tickets will be $12 at the door.  To order tickets, visit the website at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  Due to sensitive thematic material and some strong language, this show is not suitable for children.  The Barn Players is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.

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