In any list of memorable stage entrances, the initial appearance of Aurora in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" would be difficult to top. She's called forth out of thin air by the lonely Molina, the gay window dresser serving time in a brutal Latin American prison on a morals charge.
Aurora is Molina's escape hatch. She both enunciates the show's most haunting theme ("You've got to learn how not to be/where you are") and demonstrates the way to do it.In response to Molina at the beginning of the show, Aurora materializes from the darkness of Molina's mind, not as a flesh-and-blood woman but as a mythical larger-than-life character from a remembered dream.
Yet singing, dancing and kicking high, she comes on as a creature of such comic, commanding, metaphysical presence that by the end of the first number, the audience is as seduced by her as Molina is. We see the figure of his imagination.
Aurora may not be a foolproof part but, as defined by the ebullient, melodic, often adventurous score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and as directed by Harold Prince, a notorious wizard, it's a potential prize for anyone wanting to make her name in the theater.
In the way that the role worked for the incomparable Chita Rivera, Aurora is now rewarding the gorgeous Vanessa Williams, who is making a most promising Broadway debut at the Broadhurst Theater as Rivera's replacement.
Williams is not a stage personality to equal Rivera; only time and decades of living through flops, hits and in-between shows give a performer that sort of unshakeable self-assurance and sense of craft.
At 31, Williams is approximately half Rivera's age, and her theater credits are slim, but the show provides certain built-in mechanisms to protect the talented if still comparatively untried actress.
The woman playing Aurora shares the stage with Molina and his beloved cellmate, Valentin, the macho political prisoner, only in the musical numbers. She appears either in the person of Aurora, the recollected old-time movie star, or as Aurora's incarnation as the Spider Woman, the angel of death.
She's essential to the narrative, without being required to interact with anybody except the chorus.
The show's emotional and psychological heft is provided by the men playing Molina and Valentin.
In Howard McGillin (Molina) and Brian Mitchell (Valentin), the current production has two actors who perform with strength and conviction. McGillin, who also joined the show recently, is an especially happy addition to the cast. He not only sings beautifully, but he also creates a sweet, self-mocking Molina who never for a minute plays for pathos. He's tough.
Though Williams has been making a name for herself as a pop recording artist, she's probably best remembered by anyone over 30-something for the sort of nonscandal that could only have erupted in this country: Having been the first black woman ever to win the Miss America contest, she was forced to abdicate that dubious crown in 1984 when some nude photographs of her turned up in Penthouse magazine.
On the basis of her work in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," it now seems possible that Williams, if she wants to work hard, can have a long and productive career not only on records but also in cabaret and theater, possibly movies.
She's not a performer who holds back. She's throwing everything she has into this performance, which pays off with the audience.
It's fun just to watch Williams sashaying around the stage, even toward the end of the show, by which time there are fewer high kicks and her endurance is being tested. At the Broadhurst Theater her singing voice actually comes through better than it does on "Comfort Zone," the only Williams album I have, and one in which the sound levels are so uneven that you have to ride the volume controls like a board-certified engineer.
"Kiss of the Spider Woman" is a show that demands a lot of singing and dancing at the same time, which takes as much energy as a winning run in the New York Marathon.
Any reservations, it should be emphasized, are not major. "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is in splendid shape.
With the help of Williams' (I hope) large pop music constituency, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" could have a whole new lease on life. The show deserves it.