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Blank Canvas' 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' Weaves Whimsical Melancholy 

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Photo by Andy Dudik

Authorial intent can be a tricky subject. In some cases, a reinterpretation or creative decision can change the context of a performance or spark controversy. In others, it can broaden a particular work's commentary and rejuvenate a production that has more than made the rounds on and off Broadway, with a Tony award and even an Oscar-winning film adaptation to show for it.

In Blank Canvas Theatre's production of the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman, bold decisions pay off. Director Patrick Ciamacco has chosen to fully explore Luis Molina — the homosexual protagonist — as a transgender character, choosing not to hem and haw with the overt implications of the character and embracing it fully.

The decision gives the play an updated social consciousness and, to quote the incomparable Sade, Ciamacco and company have given Spider Woman a "kiss of life."

Ciamacco suggests in his introduction that the character supplies a worthwhile avenue to showcase transgender representation in one of his productions. After witnessing the show, the decision deserves praise. But the praise certainly doesn't stop there.

Based upon the Manuel Puig novel and reinvented for the stage by Terrance McNally — with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb — Kiss of the Spider Woman begins in an inhumane Latin-American prison. Molina (Scott Esposito) sits alone in his cell for sexual crimes against a minor until he is placed with Valentin (Michael Snider), a Marxist political activist and particularly closed-off individual. The two get along about as well as a hopeless romantic with an affinity for classic cinema and a no-nonsense realist with an opposing political ideology could.

With each one clinging to the few things in life he has left, Molina freely expounds to his cell mate, in the form of song, on the cinematic adventures of his idol and muse, the silver screen seductress Aurora (Rachel Maria Ines). These range from exaggerated stories of romance to Aurora's portrayal of the sensuous Spider Woman, capable of killing a man with a single kiss.

Valentin's prior criminal activities come to the attention of the Warden (Blank Canvas veteran John J. Polk), who makes it a mission to have Valentin expose anyone in his extremist operation. The Warden then enacts a strategy to have Molina get him the information that he needs. Initially cooperative, Molina eventually finds himself feeling affection for Valentin, preventing him from ratting out his cell mate.

Molina's loyalty leads Valentin to let down his guard and reluctantly bond with his cell mate, sharing secrets such as the name of his girlfriend, Marta (the lovely Grace Horvath).

Their bond goes uncontested until Molina finds himself at an ethical impasse when the Warden holds an early release and communication with Molina's ailing mother (Maggie Stahl) in the balance, barring his cooperation.

Each musical number dazzles with the glitz and glam of early Hollywood cinema, juxtaposed against the grim surroundings of a prison cell. Every inch of space within the theater is utilized with some imaginative direction, lighting and set design by Ciamacco. The accompanying band — conducted by Bradley Wyner — plays an array of delightful tunes ranging from peppy show-tune melodies to plodding orchestral swells.

Esposito and Snider have incredible chemistry together, in both dialogue and song. Esposito's boisterous delivery paired with Snider's remarkable range and simpering falsetto are sublime in numbers like "Dear One" and "Anything For Him," while their banter in "Dressing Them Up/I Draw the Line" has an Odd Couple-esque charm. Esposito and Stahl also share more than a few tear-jerking moments, such as in Stahl's fabulous execution of "You Could Never Shame Me."

The character of Aurora — famously portrayed in the past by Chita Rivera and Vanessa Williams — is a perfect fit for Ines, whose vocals ring beautifully throughout the space as she dons the many personalities of the cinematic starlet. (There are some impressive aerial silk maneuvers, to boot, during the production's titular musical number, choreographed by Sara Syed and Studio Cleveland.) The ensemble/prisoner troupe provides top-notch vocal harmony as well as serving as flamboyant backup dancers for Aurora.

One issue with this production is that, structurally, the run time of the play is a bit lopsided, as the first act nearly doubles the length of the second act. The pace of the script is rather exhaustive.

Nevertheless, fans of classic cinema and musicals alike will enjoy this refreshed rendition of Kiss of the Spider Woman.

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