KEEPING SCORE

Musicals tend to be shallow, sentimental fun--a day in the park. But once in a while, one rolls along that actually has a little something to say. Three musicals now on the boards in Denver offer something beyond a quick escape, rousing tunes and slick performances: a trace of social consciousness.

Kiss of the Spider Woman, while a far cry from both the Manuel Puig novel and the excellent Hector Babenco film, reminds us that fascism and fascist torture still rage regularly in Latin America. This Broadway road show at the Temple Buell Theater may not exactly amount to sophisticated political commentary--in fact, its grim themes are in constant danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer glitz of the production. Still, there's a lot more to it than there was to, say, The Sound of Music.

At the core of the story is a remarkable relationship between a macho revolutionary (Valentin) thrown into prison for political dissidence and a flamboyant gay window dresser (Molina) sent up on morals charges. Even in the musical's somewhat debased form of storytelling (which has to concede plot elements and character development to musical numbers), the growing mutual respect, trust and kindness between these radically different souls rings movingly true.

Molina welcomes Valentin kindly into his cell as the story opens, even though Valentin makes it clear he detests homosexuals. Valentin (played with a dreary bombast at first and a perfunctory severity at last by John Dossett) has been "interrogated," and he's cranky. Molina teases and tests Valentin at every turn, but there's no malice in the guy. Molina is a self-proclaimed coward who escapes into his fantasy world whenever he can, conjuring up his favorite star, the enigmatic Aurora (Chita Rivera), in favorite roles from extravagant old movies. Aurora sings and dances away the terrible hours, easing the boredom and shielding him from the horrors of his surroundings.

The warden attempts to bribe Molina to spy on Valentin, but Molina proves unbribable. When Valentin is poisoned, Molina nurses him through the ordeal, and eventually Valentin relaxes his distrust and the two men become friends. But when Molina is suddenly released, his love for Valentin ultimately leads to his destruction.

It's Molina's show, and Juan Chioran gives a powerful performance--though he tends to overdo the tremulous bit. He has a fine, deep, commanding singing voice and an ability to defy the eye-straining distance between himself and the back seats of the Buell to create a degree of intimacy with the audience.

The song-and-dance routines are all juicy and competently performed, if not inventive or surprising. "Gimme Love" and the title song are particularly appealing, especially since the show's all-pro headliner, Rivera, sings the latter in a fabulous web of light. In fact, stunningly mounted as the whole production is, it's the lighting design by Howell Binkley that gives it most of its eye appeal.

Yet the very thing that makes Spider Woman interesting also makes it somewhat problematic: The musical version, unlike the novel, the play and the film, inadvertently trivializes horrendous official torture and suffering in Latin America (Puig was Argentinean). There's something peculiar about breaking into song as someone is dragged off to be pummeled deaf and blind. It's even more peculiar to watch a prisoner murdered to a rousing tune. The story is good, the central character involving, the impulse behind the story noble--but middle-aged matrons mambo out to the parking lot after the show because, ultimately, the music forsakes the message.

Nothing about the production style blunts the message of In the House of Blues, across town at Eulipions. The show celebrates the contributions of female vocalists to the rich heritage of African-American music. But David Charles's play is an awkward history told almost like a ghost story. The script needs a lot of work, and the theater space is wholly devoid of glamour. Khadija Haynes's direction falters through the first half of the first act, and there's a sentimental undercurrent running through the story that surfaces in clumsy ways.

Nevertheless, something rich and real goes on in this show that consistently keeps the viewer involved. And unlike the Spider Woman score, most of this music--a full platter of blues and jazz standards--has intellectual and emotional depth. Best of all, the cast is exceptional, and the connection each singer makes with the viewer feels immediate, powerful and authentic.

A young woman (charming Robertta Johnson) inherits a run-down old jazz club, and when she and her boyfriend visit the place, a mysterious character named Mr. Blues (the savvy, exuberant Hugo Sayles) confronts them with the short, glorious history of the club and all the great ladies who sang in it. From the Great Migration to the Great Depression, he tells us, the blues flourished in its fullest form. Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith were among the leading lights who invented and refined the form that influenced American music in incalculable ways. These women come forward to say and sing their version of history and heartache, along with their "assertion of selfhood."

The death of Bessie Smith, an evil day in American history, is particularly wrenching as Mr. Blues tells us about it. Smith was refused medical treatment in a whites-only hospital after a car accident and bled to death. The tragedy is horrendous enough, however; when cast members use chairs to act out the fateful crash, it feels melodramatic, undermining the desired tragic effect.

But aside from a few false moments like that one, the show crackles. Director Haynes picks up the pace halfway through the first act, and all the song and dance numbers are thrilling. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is witty and wild, and Linda Spruell's rendition of Billie Holiday's "Willow Weep for Me" wrings the heart. Shana Chambers's rich voice does Bessie proud, and Dwayne Carrington's "Sheriff of Hell" is funny and fabulous.

If House of Blues is a history of black women's "self-assertion," the production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, at the Space Theatre, offers an outlet for self-assertion of another order. The Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League (PHAMALy) defies all the stereotypes about the disabled in a rousing, brightly choreographed (by Debbie Stark) satire of the business world. Don Bill's sparkling direction moves the differently abled actors through challenging antics, keeping the comic timing snappy and the repartee rolling.

Some of the actor's handicaps are more obvious than others--but wheelchairs can spin and maneuver with incredible precision. A couple of the actors are legally blind, but it never affects how they take the stage or dance up a storm. And very soon, the viewer stops wondering what this cast can't do, instead marveling at what they do. It's all tremendous fun, with a bonus: The show's entire original meaning undergoes a transformation as mild satire deepens into a metaphor about overcoming the odds.

Troy Willis plays J. Pierrepont Finch, the guy who rises from the mail room to become the chairman of the board. He even resembles the star of the 1967 film, Robert Morse, undergirding the character's opportunism with the same boyish ingenuousness. Tara Cowan plays Rosemary, the secretary who loves and protects Finch and plots sweetly to wed him from the moment she lays eyes on him. Mark Dissette as the lecherous company president wheedles and cajoles the luscious Hedy La Rue (played with adorable Barbie-doll goofiness by Lucy Roucis) with the same energetic bluster with which he commands the firm. Chris Vollmar as the insidious geek, Bud Frump, is so witty, gangly and spiteful that you've got to love him.

Musicals with a conscience--what a concept. From the dubious glamour of Spider Woman to the poorly written but delightfully realized House of Blues to the exhilarating wonder of PHAMALy's Business, the progression is clear: Pay your money and take your choice.

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