Eclipse produces a site-specific production of the Kander and Ebb musical in Toronto’s Don Jail
Eclipse, a new theatre company with a mission to produce site-specific musical theatre, chose the historic Don Jail as the site for its inaugural production of the Tony Award-winning Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Kander and Ebb show with book by Terrence McNally, based on Manuel Puig’s novel. The jail, now an administration building for Bridgepoint Health, is an appropriate, eerie match for the musical set in a brutal Argentinian prison in the 1970s during the Dirty War. Directed by Evan Tsitsias and billed as a staged concert production, this instead feels fully realized – and near-perfect.
Molina (the wonderful Kawa Ada) is a gay window dresser, serving his third year of eight for corruption of a minor. Chatty and effervescent, eyes constantly crinkling with wistful mirth, he escapes to a fantasy world led by movie star Aurora (Tracy Michalidis); she plays roles ranging from revolutionaries to the dreaded Spider Woman, who sucks your life out with a kiss. Tending to Valentin (Jonathan Winsby), a macho Marxist revolutionary who’s been tortured and dumped into his cell, Molina and his forceful personality are initially met with hostility and suspicion. The developing relationship between the two men is complicated by the prison warden (Alejandro Ampudia), who, from the catwalks, dangles threats of Molina’s dying mother (Jayne Lewis) and promises of his freedom in return for informing on Valentin’s co-conspirators.
The preshow begins with a tour of the Don, with occasional surprise actor cameos for atmosphere; this emphasizes that its reputation as a “palace of prisons” was strictly about outside appearance, with cramped, inhumane conditions inside and its last hanging as recent as 1962. The tiny, stark cells stay in your mind as Valentin resolutely draws a line to keep Molina on his own side, halving what must have already been nearly unbearably small.
The music and lyrics are Kander and Ebb at their vampiest, and a book by Terrence McNally keeps things moving at a sprightly, bubbly pace that’s half champagne and half acid. The show itself is a commentary on toxic masculinity and violence, and the bravery and revolutionary nature of finding one’s own definition of what makes a man. It’s about love, and its ability to make one stick to one’s principles or run away from them. It makes an argument for its own existence in its portrayal of the power of escapism to provide a certain type of hope in darkness, whether that hope is empty or not.
The staged concert nature of the production probably contributes to the sometimes-odd mix of real and stylized violence and action, which doesn’t hew directly to the real versus imagined scenes. That doesn’t take away from the power of the leads, who all deliver stunning, captivating performances with Broadway-quality vocals. The developing relationship between Molina and Valentin, from the initial hostility on the latter’s part, to a grudging respect, to something much deeper, is utterly believable, with Winsby effectively softening his expansive, passionate anger into something more wary and gentle.
As Aurora, Michalidis absolutely tears up the stage, alternating Hollywood magic with chilling imperiousness, and getting to wear some stellar costumes in the process. Lewis radiates a warm, Patricia Clarkson-esque quality as Molina’s refreshingly loving mother.
The rotunda features levels of wall-hugging balconies for the chorus to stalk, and a glass floor in a reinforced spiderweb pattern that couldn’t be more appropriate to light from beneath. The ensemble, drawn largely from Sheridan College, ably takes on the roles of the wretched prisoners and Aurora’s backup. Their crisp, stylish choreography (Sara-Jeanne Hosie) manages to feel full and exciting despite the constraints of the small stage space and the closeness of the audience; it helps that the two upper levels and a high ceiling give the room an expansive feel. As the audience is sharply curved around the stage, it would be nice to have some dancers in the big numbers play out to the sides more. It would also be nice to replace the chairs, which replicate prison-style levels of discomfort.
The acoustics are marvelous when the cast belts it out on those upper walkways; the only unfortunate part is that it’s very hard to hear words from any unamplified cast member, partially due to the space and partially due to the sound balance. This means some important plot information gets a little lost, though it’s not too hard to tell what’s going on because the leads are crystal clear.
Kiss of the Spider Woman marries stellar performances with a great show and a perfect setting. Unfortunately, tickets for this presentation have Ebbed away, so you Kander kiss your chances of seeing it goodbye. However, with such a strong first outing and powerful buzz, you can bet Eclipse will be presenting more of these delightful site-specific escapes from reality.
- Kiss of the Spider Woman plays at the Don Jail (550 Gerrard St. E) until Sunday, March 10, 2019
- Shows are at 7:30PM Thursday-Sunday, with 1:30PM Saturday and Sunday matinees
- Tickets are $40-48 and can be purchased online*
- The play features nudity and simulated acts of violence and sexual assault, and is suitable for mature audiences.
*Note: Tickets are currently sold out for the rest of the run.
Photo of Kawa Ada and Jonathan Winsby by John Gundy