Stagecrafters gambles with serious, moving musical

By Bridgette M. Redman

There are some shows that community theaters aren't eager to take risks on in hard economic times. Terrence McNally, John Kander and Fred Ebb's musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman: The Musical" is one such show.
It can be a hard sell to those looking for a night of light entertainment. For starters, it takes place in a Latin American prison and centers around the relationship of a gay man serving a sentence for corrupting a minor and a Marxist revolutionary who is slowly being tortured to death. Not the stuff of a light musical.
"There is a distinction between musical comedy and musical theater. This is definitely musical theater," said John Luther, the director of a local production of this musical. "It is a stunning story. No matter how difficult it is to watch some of the prison sequences, in the end there is redemption, revolution, love and acceptance."
Stagecrafters in Royal Oak is taking the economic risk this week when it opens the show Luther has been pitching to them for years. He first presented it to their board seven years ago for their 50th anniversary season and has suggested it every year since. When he was told last year that they'd finally agreed to do it, he was shocked.
"I literally didn't believe it for the first 24 hours," Luther said. "The subject matter is quite difficult, and community theaters…are looking at the bottom line. We have to choose a season that will make money. You can't bring your kids (to this musical). You can't sell it as a family show. You have to sell it as a show for adults and hopefully attract adults who want to not only be entertained, but challenged at the same time."
Luther first saw the show during its original run on Broadway in 1993 and again in 1994. He was a professional dancer in New York and had many friends who were sick or dying of AIDS. "Kiss of the Spider Woman" presented a gay character who was more than just comic relief.
"There is a real dimensionality to this particular character," Luther said. "He generated a lot of pathos. It was very transformative to see this story unfold at a time when I was dealing with so many people dead and dying. It gave me a lot of insights into the relationships we form, how we think about love, how we think about reality and how we create our own realities."
Another challenge with this musical is finding the right people. It calls for 13 men and three women. All the men have to be able to act, sing, and dance – something that can be difficult to find outside of the professional realm. While praising his leads, Luther said he is especially thrilled with the cast's ensemble.
"The ensemble have worked so hard to make this show look and feel the way this show needs to look and feel. I really have to say hats off to the ensemble in this show. They're the glue that holds everything together."
John Nowaczyk plays Molina, the gay man who fantasizes about movie musicals featuring Aurora in her multiple roles. Gary Castaneda is Valentin, the macho revolutionary who slowly comes to accept his cellmate. Playing the fantasy actress Aurora in her many roles is Maria Tilmos.
"Nowaczyk has so much depth to the character Molina," Luther said. "He goes from being campy and over the top to pathetic to triumphant to heroic. It's just amazing to watch how John transforms the character over the course of the show. It's the same with Gary who plays Valentin. He starts out as an angry revolutionary. We see his character, against his will, become so much more accepting of Molina. In the Latin macho culture, you would never form a positive relationship with a gay person. Over time you watch him transform because of Molina and (Gary) does a great job with that transformation."
Tilmos has the demanding title role, an actress playing an actress who appears in different roles every time she appears. She's clothed in different costumes and performs in a variety of styles, both acting and musical.
With its sweeping set and hauntingly beautiful music featuring Latin beats, viola and oboe, Luther strongly believes this is a show that deserves to be seen – by both the gay and straight communities.
"I would love for people to just come to the show because it is a good show and one of the characters happens to be gay," said Luther. "That's my philosophy on being gay. It doesn't define the entirety of who I am. Yes, being gay is part of who I am, but it isn't everything. (Molina) is a gay man in the beginning, but in the end, he has absorbed so much that he is a man who happens to be gay."

'Kiss of the Spider Woman: The Musical'
Stagecrafters at Baldwin Theatre, 415 S. Lafayette Ave., Royal Oak. Jan. 20 – Feb. 12. $18-$20. 248-541-5430.


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