The kiss of sweet success
By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin
Manoa Valley Theatre has taken the lead recently in bringing Honolulu modern plays dealing with controversial topics and adult themes. MVT's production of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is another such show. The emotional chemistry in the performances of male leads Andrew Sakaguchi and Guy Merola makes this one of the best musicals of the 1998-99 season.
"Spider Woman" is a modern love tragedy set in an unidentified Latin American nation. Valentin (Merola) is a terrorist/ revolutionary forced to share a prison cell with Molina (Sakaguchi), a homosexual window dresser doing time for sex acts with an underage male. Molina has a vivid imagination and whiles away the hours with colorful fantasies of romantic old movies and Aurora, his favorite old-time actress; he dreads the lethal vamp she portrayed in one of her films. Valentin initially wants nothing to do with Molina but gradually comes to respect him. Valentin eventually exploits Molina for the greater glory of the revolution.
Sakaguchi alone is worth the price of admission. He plays "gay" with such winning winsome appeal that he owns the audience even before his first big musical number, "Dressing Them Up." Already known as a dancer, Sakaguchi proves himself a powerful and compelling singer with "She's A Woman" and "Mama, It's Me" as well. He brings equal depth and finesse to his acting.
Merola combines an earthy edgy presence with an excellent voice. "The Day After That" is his supreme vocal showcase but he delivers on "My First Woman" and "Marta" as well.
Director/choreographer John Rampage, on loan from his day job as artistic director of Diamond Head Theatre, is another key figure. His staging of Molina's drug-induced "Morphine Tango" becomes moment of macabre high comedy and a fine showcase for Sakaguchi and the male ensemble.
Yvonne Filius (Spider Woman/Aurora) is consistently cool and emotionally neutral in both roles. No sensitivity or loving chemistry is evident between Aurora and Molina, while the dreaded Spider Women is devoid of the seductive yet forbidden appeal expected of such a lethal Theda Bara-type creature. Filius' stunningly unflattering costume with its cruelly drawn web pattern should have been rethought and replaced before the show opened. It cripples the visual impact of her performance.
It's not Filius's fault that she is ill-served by costume designer Alexander Torres in almost every scene, but she also seems less than confident as the female lead in Rampage's big dance numbers and noticeably outdone by the graceful Sakaguchi when they dance together. She has extensive credits as a powerful dramatic vocalist, and did well when cast against type as the hapless female punching bag in DHT's production of "Oliver!" last fall, but she didn't have her usual vocal presence next to the other principals on opening night.
"Russian Movie/Good Times" is a delightful exception. Molina's account of a tragic Russian love story is staged as pure comic melodrama, Filius' comic skills come to the fore, and her campy vampy performance becomes her best moment in the show. Even the costume works.
The production benefits from strong supporting performances. Russell Motter follows an excellent performance as evil Tom Ewell in MVT's "To Kill A Mockingbird" with equally fine work as the menacing Warden. Rhonda brings welcome warmth and vocal range to the show as Molina's mother; her interplay with Sakaguchi makes "You Could Never Shame Me" a touching testament and a powerful dramatic moment. Greg Howell adds the right note of polite regret as the heterosexual waiter who couldn't reciprocate Molina's interest because "I'm Not Like That." Katie Shriver stands out as Valentin's girlfriend.
Kiss of the Spider Woman
On stage: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through March 21
Place: Manoa Valley Theatre
Click for online
calendars and events.