NEW BEST FRIENDS Strouss and Yang.
As novels ripe for musical adaptation go, Kiss of the Spider Woman is no Les Misérables. A flaunting queen and a fearful political prisoner growing closer in a prison of a South American dictatorship, with the sounds of torture recurring as background music? Bravely, Brown University Theatre and Sock & Buskin are staging it anyway (through November 11), directed by Marcus Gardley, with musical direction by Adria Barbosa.
Its Broadway creators certainly have credentials, between the book by Terrence McNally (Ragtime), the music by John Kander and the lyrics by Fred Ebb (both behind Chicago and Cabaret). After a rocky development start, it ended up doing well on London's West End and Broadway in the early '90s.
Given that it relies at least equally on dramatic character development as on song and dance distractions, a college production is more problematical. We won't be seeing it replace The Fantasticks in high school auditoriums unless the general psychological atmosphere gets far more dire.
Already in prison three years on an eight-year sentence for soliciting a male minor is window dresser Molina (Evan Strouss), a remarkably upbeat guy, considering his circumstances. The only thing he seems to worry about is missing his mother (Neha Verma), which is eventually put to good use by the conniving warden (Gerrit Thurston). He keeps his spirits up by screening in his mind all the movies of seductive film star Aurora (Madeleine Heil), claiming to know every line in nearly every film. All but one, Kiss of the Spider Woman — in which she kills with a kiss, prompting nightmares for Molina.
Tossed roughly onto the floor of his cell one day is Valentin (Teng Yang), arrested after passing on a message for a revolutionary group. He's furious at being there and annoyed at being thrown in with a homosexual, marking a line between their cots that he forbids Molina to cross. Inevitably, they get to know each other, with Valentin saying that he loves an aristocratic young woman named Marta (Becca Millstein) and Molina telling him of his love for a waiter named Gabriel (Hayward Leach). Inevitably, freedom is dangled before Molina, if only he will betray his new friend.
Some of the songs reflect or advance the characters, such as recurring snatches from "Over the Wall," in which the prisoner ensemble fantasizes about rum and "big-busted women" and the like. "Gabriel's Letter" is an interesting addition, establishing that despite protests to Molina that he is "not that way," his heterosexuality is on shaky footing. At least a couple of the songs are downright silly, such as "Morphine Tango," where Molina in the infirmary is delirious as male orderlies stagger around him like zombies; and "Gimme Love," a purportedly erotic orgiastic production number replete with gold hot pants — it's more like choreographed birth control.
However. Heil's singing and dancing and vamping as Aurora is a series of wowing wonders to behold. There is "Where You Are," which she shares with Marta, and a rendition of "Gimme Love" with Molina that closes Act One. But with "Russian Movie" and "Good Times" opening the second half, complemented by the two male leads, Heil delights us with a campy spoof of the classic femme fatale, giving her character a winking sense of humor and a down-on-your-knees-slave sexuality.