Friday, February 4, 2011

Theater roundup: A quality 'Spider Woman'; 'Frankenstein' well-cast but weak

Renata Eastlick as Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman.

By Hap Erstein

West Boca’s Slow Burn Theatre Co.‭ ‬hascarved out a niche for itself that no other area stage troupe seems interested in filling.‭ ‬Its stated mission is to tackle‭ “‬daring,‭ ‬contemporary and intelligent‭” ‬musicals,‭ ‬which certainly describes its current production of Kiss of the Spider Woman.

This odd-couple tale of Molina,‭ ‬a gay window dresser,‭ ‬and Valentin,‭ ‬a macho freedom fighter,‭ ‬thrown together in a Latin American prison cell,‭ ‬is a challenge to pull off and a challenge for an audience to go along to the dark recesses of the human condition where this adaptation of Manuel Puig’s acclaimed novel resides.‭ ‬It is a journey well worth taking,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬for the material has inspired director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater and his cast to brawny and bombastic heights.

The brutal story line is hardly the stuff of conventional musical theater,‭ ‬but then composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb have been tackling risky subject matter for the past‭ ‬45‭ ‬years,‭ ‬since their breakthrough musical about seamy Weimar Germany,‭ ‬Cabaret.

Because prissy Molina helps Valentin mentally escape their bitter existence by narrating and describing the films of his film goddess idol Aurora,‭ ‬the show has an excuse for musical theater relief with movie-within-the-show production numbers.‭ ‬The result is a schizophrenic musical with two levels of reality,‭ ‬which needs precise staging that moves with cinematic ease,‭ ‬and Slow Burn delivers on both counts.‭

Typical of the live movie sequences is the song Where You Are,‭ ‬a musical tribute to mental escape,‭ ‬sung by leggy Renata Eastlick‭ (‬Aurora‭) ‬and her chorus boys/prisoners.‭ ‬Latin rhythms have inspired some of Kander’s most melodic work in years and Ebb’s lyrics of yearning for the incarcerated have a palpable heart-on-the-sleeve quality.

Fitzwater showcases a new arrival in the area,‭ ‬doughy Tom Creatore as emotionally fragile Molina,‭ ‬whose vocal confidence has an underlying touching quality.‭ ‬Co-artistic director Matthew Korinko is an impressive counterpoint as Valentin,‭ ‬particularly in his optimistic anthem of eventual triumph,‭ ‬The Day After That.

Eastlick fulfills the promise she showed in support in Slow Burn’s recent Rocky Horror Show,‭ ‬commanding the spotlight in the dual roles of Aurora and her death symbol film character,‭ ‬Spider Woman.‭ ‬Also a standout is Mary Gundlach,‭ ‬whose portrayal of Molina’s heartsick mother is very affecting.

Slow Burn also makes some significant strides in design here as scenic designer designer Ian T.‭ ‬Almeida harnesses the problematic,‭ ‬oversized performance space with an epic and surreal multi-level unit set. Although painted matte black,‭ ‬lighting designer Lance Blank executes instant mood changes by showering it with Technicolor hues.‭ ‬Another sign of Slow Burn’s increased technical mastery is the sound design by Traci Almeida,‭ ‬which crisply balances the cast and Ivy Adams‭’ ‬four-piece combo.

This second production by Slow Burn continues only through Sunday,‭ ‬but it is well worth seeking out this most artistically satisfying production in the company’s one year of existence.

KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN,‭ ‬Slow Burn Theatre Company at West Boca High School,‭ ‬12811‭ ‬West Glades Rd.,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬Feb.‭ ‬6.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$30.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬866‭) ‬811-4111.

‭ * * *

Preston Truman Boyd and Christopher Ryan in Young Frankenstein.
(Photo by Paul Kolnik)

“Comparisons are odious,‭” ‬as John Donne allegedly once observed,‭ ‬but he forgot to add‭ “‬and inevitable.‭” ‬In the case of Young Frankenstein‭ ‬--‭ ‬whose full title is The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein,‭ ‬in case anyone might forget from whose fertile gag-reflex brain the show stems‭ ‬--‭ ‬it is up against two comparisons and it comes in a distant second to each.

For starters,‭ ‬it has to live up to our memories of the‭ ‬1974‭ ‬original black-and-white movie,‭ ‬a gem-like send-up of vintage horror films.‭ ‬But the best Brooks‭ (‬and his co-writer Thomas Meehan‭) ‬can do is repeat the movie’s best punch lines which,‭ ‬for most of the audience,‭ ‬now lack any surprise.

The less fair,‭ ‬but no less evident,‭ ‬comparison is to Brooks‭’ ‬previous stage musical,‭ ‬The Producers,‭ ‬a far better-written adaptation that was showered in the‭ ‬2001-2002‭ ‬season with more Tony Awards than any show in Broadway history.‭ ‬Perhaps figuring that his next effort could get by on residual admiration,‭ ‬Brooks settled for an evening of recycled jokes and uninspired songs.

It is not until the middle of the second act that Dr.‭ ‬Frederick Frankenstein‭ ‬--‭ ‬the grandson of Mary Shelley’s mad scientist‭ ‬--‭ ‬and the monster he brings back to life tap their way through Puttin‭’ ‬on the Ritz.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬the song was written long ago by that irrepressible tunesmith Irving Berlin and it puts the rest of the show’s score to shame.‭ (‬Hmm,‭ ‬make that odious comparison Number Three.‭) ‬At least director-choreographer Susan Stroman builds the scene into a tap-stravagant production number,‭ ‬as the rest of the cast gets into the act.‭

The stage show is sub-par,‭ ‬but at least the national tour‭ ‬--‭ ‬which is playing the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach this week‭ ‬--‭ ‬has reasonably good production values and is well cast.‭ ‬Without relying on impersonation,‭ ‬the performers do not stray far from their movie counterparts,‭ ‬Gene Wilder,‭ ‬Peter Boyle,‭ ‬Marty Feldman,‭ ‬Madeline Kahn,‭ ‬Cloris Leachman,‭ ‬et.‭ ‬al.‭ ‬Of them,‭ ‬Cory English is a standout,‭ ‬even hunched over as spry sidekick Igor.‭ ‬As the Monster,‭ ‬hulking Preston Truman Boyd displays killer timing on his vaudeville song-and-dance and Synthia Link is aptly luscious as hayride-happy Inga,‭ ‬sort of a rewrite of The Producers‭’ ‬Ulla.

Nevertheless,‭ ‬without its roots in the movie version or without the Brooks imprimatur,‭ ‬Young Frankenstein would never have made it to Broadway,‭ ‬and certainly would never have cloned a road tour.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN,‭ ‬Kravis Center for the Performing Arts,‭ ‬701‭ ‬Okeechobee Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬Feb.‭ ‬6.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$25‭ ‬and up.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬832-7469‭ ‬or‭ (‬800‭) ‬572-8471.

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