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A lasting, unforgettable "Kiss'

Published Oct. 8, 2005

Kiss of the Spider Woman has had an amazing run in almost every storytelling form.

First, it was a novel by Manuel Puig. Next, it was a movie with William Hurt, Raul Julia and Sonia Braga. Puig also adapted the work into a two-character play. Now, it's a hit musical by Terrence McNally, John Kander and Fred Ebb, opening its national tour Tuesday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

Can Kiss of the Spider Woman: The Opera be far behind?

Puig's 1976 novel is an improbable source of commercial spinoffs. It's about a gay window dresser and a political revolutionary, locked up in a Latin American prison. There's torture, mutilation and the suggestion of rape. Grim stuff.

The appeal derives from the cinematic fantasies spun by Molina the window dresser, a metaphor for escapism that has a potent hold on audiences.

"It goes from black and white to technicolor, from reality to fantasy, and that's very theatrical," says Chita Rivera, who won the 1993 Tony Award as best leading actress in a musical for her performance.

Rivera, who plays Aurora, a B-movie diva, and the sinister Spider Woman, arrived for rehearsals earlier this week at TBPAC. She'll be in the touring company for a year.

"It's very, very musical," she continues. "It's very passionate. It's all those things that theater audiences love. They love to be taken places, and they love to be surprised."

Rivera's success in Kiss of the Spider Woman is something of a classic show business tale. In 1986, she was in a car accident in which her left leg was broken in 12 places, and now she's singing and dancing again at the age of 61.

It's no coincidence her comeback was in a Kander and Ebb show. She won a Tony in 1984 for her performance in The Rink, also by Kander and Ebb. "They know me better than anybody," she says. "If anybody can write for me, Freddy and John can."

Kiss of the Spider Woman is still on Broadway, starring Vanessa Williams, who has been widely praised. Rivera offers no opinion of Williams, but isn't surprised that someone else is scoring big in the role.

"I always thought Annie Lennox (formerly of Eurythmics) would be great," she says. "She's one of those women who has a great aura about them. They don't even have to dance, dance, dance. The most important thing is to have a strong presence, especially in the Spider Woman. You have to bring depth to it."

AMERICAN DRAMA: There are times when I think reading about theater is more satisfying than actually going to it, at least when what I read is by critics like Kenneth Tynan, Robert Brustein and Richard Gilman, all of whom made their marks in the'60s. If today's theater criticism can't boast of heavy hitters of that ilk, then Marc Robinson will do. Robinson's new book, The Other American Drama (Cambridge University Press), includes useful discussions of works of Wallace Shawn, Mac Wellman, Suzan-Lori Parks and others in the avant-garde.