Despite having musical-theatre pro Caroline O’Connor in the title role, and Ainsley Melham delivering a powerful, charismatic lead performance, this new production doesn’t quite conquer Kiss of the Spider Woman’s difficult assignment of literally merging escapist musical fantasy with very bleak, realist subject matter.

Winner of seven Tony Awards in 1993, including Best Musical, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman has had the respect but nothing like the love of their musicals Cabaret and Chicago (currently on another go-round of Australia). It shares these more popular shows’ musically driven fight against the darkness, but essentially never escapes the violent horrors of fascism and homophobia. That’s what gives the story based on Manuel Puig’s novel plenty of impact. It’s not the stuff of a big feel-good musical though, which is why this Melbourne Theatre Company outing is, I understand, the first fully staged professional production in this country.

Adam-Jon Fiorentino and Ainsley Melham. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Set in a South American fascist-state prison, it centres on two cell mates: gay window-dresser Molina (Melham), convicted of corrupting a minor after being set up; and Valentin (Adam-Jon Fiorentino), a revolutionary being tortured because the authorities want the names of his fellow dissidents. Molina chatters constantly as a means of escaping his miserable reality, and especially enjoys recounting the films of screen goddess Aurora (O’Connor), who appears in numerous magical realist sequences. Valentin is hostile to this queer, apolitical nonsense, but Molina’s kindness leads to mutual support, even devotion.

Meanwhile, Molina is tempted by the prison warden’s promise of release and a return to his beloved mother if he reveals those names. His fears are personified by the Spider Woman, whose kiss means death. The one character Aurora played whom Molina dislikes, this dark figure appears again and again, unbidden.

This production directed by Dean Bryant is one of two distinct halves, at least on opening night. The first, considerably longer act was flat, despite several appearances by Caroline O’Connor as Aurora. Backed by a rarely seen four-piece band playing Kander’s Hollywood-meets Latin music, dressed in various fab Golden Years of Hollywood-inspired costumes by Alicia Clements, she shimmies and croons like the musical-theatre trouper she is, sometimes with the rest of the cast of 12 in support – the prison guards even join in with silver-glitter helmets and batons for one number. O’Connor seems never to commit to either comedy or drama (as the Spider Woman) in Act I, however, and most the rest of the cast fails to convince.

The exceptions are a chilling Bert LaBonté as the warden, Natalie Gamsu in brief but poised, poignant appearances as Molina’s mother, and Ainsley Melham as Molina himself. Fresh from the title role in the Aladdin musical in both Australia and on Broadway, Melham nails his character’s charm, which is simultaneously flamboyant and kind, and barely contained anxiety – about his ill mother, his unrequited love and the constant threat of pain and death simply because of who he is.

Ainsley Melham and Caroline O’Connor. Photograph © Jeff Busby

There was a palpable boost in energy and conviction in the second act from the get-go. O’Connor played up the melodramatic comedy of a bright, spacious opening scene that overcomes Clements’ grimy prison set in a way that earlier fantasy moments didn’t. With a large black diaphanous cape spread out behind her like a web, O’Connor later sings the title song with something like the dark, vampy threat this figure should have, but lacked before. This number could have been a showstopper but was marred by a distracting, highly stylised sex scene downstage better merely imagined offstage.

As Valentin, Adam-Jon Fiorentino hit his stride in Act II: previously vocally uneven, he led a rousing The Day After That and began to show a revolutionary’s fire, helping the chemistry between him and Melham to warm. By the time Kiss of the Spider Woman reached its dramatic climax, which includes a shocking theatrical effect, we had made a connection with all the key characters at last. What happens to them mattered, so that the bright movie-musical-like fantasy epilogue – the “unlikely happy ending”, as Molina describes it – feels genuinely bittersweet.

Mounting Kiss of the Spider Woman is a challenge. It demands that escapist musical fantasies emerge fully formed from an oppressive prison set, and must persuade musical audiences generally addicted to upbeat, heterosexual romantic tales that the opposite is worth singing and dancing about. This MTC production doesn’t quite succeed in either regard, despite a good show by O’Connor and Melham’s memorable performance.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is at the Sumner Theatre, Melbourne, until December 28

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