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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
June 2007
Kiss of the Spider Woman

Gay Argentinean writer Manuel Puig’s novel, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” has been transformed into a two-character play, an Oscar-winning movie, and a Tony Award-winning Musical. The story follows two prisoners, Molina, an openly gay window-dresser, jailed for “corrupting a minor” and Valentin, a Marxist revolutionary, working to bring down the government, as they share a cell. The jailers torture Valentin and coerce Molina into informing on Valentin. Using movie plots he concocts — especially concerning an invented diva, Aurora — Molina gradually wins Valentin’s confidence, with tragic results.

I saw this show on Broadway with Chita Rivera, and was pleased when I heard that The Minneapolis Musical Theatre was producing it as their offering during Gay Pride Month. Vividly directed by Steven J. Meerdink, with musical direction by Lori Maxwell, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is quite the best show they’ve done since “Bat Boy.” Meerdink opens the show with the image of dancing cages revealing the frustrations of the prisoners, as they whirl around the stage. Hennepin Stages is a limiting space, but Meerdink’s production makes the most of it.

While there is a superb libretto by gay playwright Terrence McNally, the story is told largely in musical terms through its sensational score by gay composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. Using cinema as a focus, Meerdink’s production not only enhances the most dramatic moments, but he finds the corniness in a sequence at the top of Act II, helping to lighten the tension. He gives us five chorus boys, all of whom have hunky moments, and one, David B. Young, even moons the audience at one point.

The top acting honors go to Edward Williams, Jr., who is merely terrific as Molina, carrying the weight of the story on his shoulders. He is equally matched by a marvelously delivered performance by Tim Kuehl as Valentin. Virginia Flannery is very good as the mother, too. If Stacey Lindell as Aurora doesn’t necessarily begin the show as the epitome of Latin sexuality she’s meant to be, about midway through Act I, she becomes the bewitching title character.

The only flaw in this Spider Woman is a minor one. On Broadway, a moving spider web projection followed the character around as she sang and danced the title song. Here, that effect is missing, but Kiss of the Spider Woman is a sensation nevertheless. It continues through June 24, 2007.

Turandot

Directed and designed by gay Italian director, Franco Zeffirelli, the Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini’s unfinished last opera, “Turandot,” is, simply, the most beautiful thing ever put on any stage. The dramatic love story focuses on Turandot, the cruel Ice Princess of Peking, who must wed the man who answers her three riddles. All of her suitors have been executed. When Calaf, son of the blinded king Timur, and cared for by the long-suffering Liu (who loves Calaf), determines to marry Turandot, he successfully answers the riddles. He offers Turandot a challenge, but love finally wins.

The Metropolitan Opera’s production is two decades old, but it was gracefully performed on May 3 by Erika Sunnergardh as the title character, with Richard Margison every bit her equal as Calaf. Liping Zhang offered a heartbreaking performance as Liu, while Timur was sung brilliantly by Hao Jiang Tian. Hung Yun, John McVeigh and Charles Reid, offered as the clearly gay (at least in Zeffirelli’s production) trio of Ping, Pang and Pong. What made this so beautiful, beyond the performances were Zeffirelli’s eye-popping sets, especially the Royal Palace, built over a lake. It was a glorious evening at the Opera.

Il Trittico

Puccini’s trilogy of one-acts, “Il Trittico,” which I saw on May 4, is rarely given a complete staging, but conducted by James Levine, gay Broadway director Jack O’Brien (Hairspray, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) was invited to stage the complete evening at the Metropolitan Opera. Given a limited engagement, it, too, featured beautiful sets by Douglas W. Schmidt. Each of these works, in their own right, is a little gem; together they’re a magnificent night of Opera. The first work, “Il Tabarro,” is about an illicit love affair between Giorgetta and Luigi, set on a barge docked on the Seine in 1920s Paris. With Maria Guleghina and Salvatore Licitra in the leading roles, Juan Pons as the suspicious husband, Michele and Stephanie Blyth as Frugola, Il Tabarro was beautiful and sad.

Suor Angelica featured Barbara Frittoli as the title character, who became a nun to repent for her sins. Stephanie Blyth was especially effective here as Angelica’s sister, who’s come to tell her about family matters which result in tragedy.

The most delightful of the three is drawn from Dante’s “Inferno.” Gianni Schicchi is about a trickster who is asked to disguise himself as a man on his deathbed, so the family can revise the will in their favor. The most frequently performed of the trilogy, it features the beautiful aria, “Oh! mio babbino caro.” Under O’Brien’s skillful direction, with marvelous performances from Olga Mykytenko as Lauretta, Stephanie Blythe as Zita, Jeff Mattsey as Marco, and Alessandro Corbelli as the title character, it was a lovely way to end this superb production, to be revived next season at the Met.

The Drowsy Chaperone

The popular musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a lovely way to while away an afternoon on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre. Written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, with a score by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, the show is very simple. A gay man, known simply as “Man in Chair,” and here played by gay actor John Glover, spends the afternoon playing the album for a show he really loves, titled “The Drowsy Chaperone.” A bit of nonsense on the order of “The Boyfriend,” as he listens, the show comes to vivid life in his apartment. It tells the story of actress Janet Van De Graaff (Janine Lamanna), who is giving up her career to marry Robert Martin (Troy Britton Johnson). They are guests in the home of Mrs. Tottendale (Joanne Worley), and are watched over by the Drowsy (drunk) Chaperone, delightfully performed by Beth Leavel. There are gangsters, chorines, producers, and Lotharios, all trying to spoil the wedding. Casey Nicholaw’s production moves quickly (the show is played without intermission), and even includes moments when the record skips and actors repeat musical phrases. “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a genuine treat.

Grey Gardens

For years, many of us have been captivated by the Maysles Brothers’ film documentary, “Grey Gardens.” It exposes how Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, survived by living in squalor in their Long Island mansion, Grey Gardens. Living with 52 cats, three rabid raccoons and vermin, they had no plumbing, cooked on a hot plate, and sometimes ate cat food because neither of these women could see very well. “Grey Gardens” is a chronicle of a train wreck, because the Beales were obviously crazy.

Gay writer, composer and lyricists Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie have fashioned the story into one of the most important musicals of the modern theatre. Staged by Jeff Calhoun (Tommy Tune’s former protégé) and directed by Michael Greif, it’s an amazing evening of theatre, that’s every bit as fascinating as the movie. For one thing, they’ve created a back story which attempts to show how things started falling apart.

Act 1 is set in July 1941. The Beales are about to announce Edie’s engagement to Joe Kennedy, when Edith, a frustrated singer, learns that her husband left her for another woman. While Edith’s gay accompanist George Gould Strong observes, as Edith, now determined to keep Edie to herself, damages the engagement. Her father, Major Bouvier, leaves her $65,000 to live on for the remainder of her life.

Act 2 is set in 1973. The documentary has brought the curious to Grey Gardens, but somehow, Edith and Edie are surviving. While Edie keeps trying to escape, she’s tied to her mother forever. Jerry, a teenage handy man (who was, in 1977, Mr. Club Baths) has befriended them, and wants to help them clean up their lives. (While not expressed in the musical, Edith died in 1977. Edie sold the mansion in 1979 and moved to Florida. She died a few years ago.)

On Broadway, “Grey Gardens” is filled with vivid performances that bring this material to life. Christine Ebersole is a revelation as both Edith (in Act 1) and Edie in Act 2. She’s certain to win the Tony, but she’s matched by the brilliant Mary Louise Wilson as Edith in Act 2. Wilson also deserves a Tony. Matt Cavenaugh is the hunky Joe Kennedy in Act 1, and Jerry in Act 2. Bob Stillman is a solid Gould, while Michael Potts, as the Butler in Act 1 and his son in Act 2, is terrific.

While not for everyone’s taste, I loved Grey Gardens, and hope to see it again.


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