The rise of Nazism in newly-annexed Austria = The Sound of Music.

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The rise of Nazism in newly-annexed Austria = The Sound of Music.

Racism and juvenile delinquency on the streets of New York = West Side Story.

Injustice, crushing poverty, and bloody revolution in France = Les Misérables.

Musical theatre gets a rap for being escapist entertainment, but it's surprising how frequently musicals take on hard, challenging subjects and settings.

The warden uses Molina's dying mother (Donna Fletcher) as a pawn to manipulate him. (Gary Barringer)

The warden uses Molina's dying mother (Donna Fletcher) as a pawn to manipulate him. (Gary Barringer)

Well, perhaps it's not that difficult when considering musicals involving Kander and Ebb, who have previously managed to pan gold from the creeping decay of Nazism in Berlin (Cabaret) and a sensational murder trial in Chicago (Chicago).

Kiss of the Spider Woman, a musical adaptation of a 1986 movie, which was itself an adaptation of a 1976 novel by Manuel Puig, is set in a challenging milieu: an Argentine prison following the military coup of the Peron government in the mid-1970s. Here, political prisoners are routinely tortured for information about their uncaptured comrades. Such is the case for Valentin (Matthew Fletcher), a Marxist revolutionary targeted for particular abuse by the suit-clad Warden (James McLennan).

Valentin is made to share his cell with the homosexual window dresser Molina (Reid McTavish), serving the third year of an eight-year prison sentence for sexual deviancy, specifically corruption of a minor.

The Warden puts pressure on Molina to glean information from Valentin on his cohorts, especially his lover Marta (Elena Howard Scott). The Warden uses Molina's dying mother (Donna Fletcher) as a pawn, promising Molina he can be freed to see her if he will milk the information from Valentin.

On top of that, Valentin is subject to horrific torture, obliging the good-hearted Molina to tend to his cellmate's wounds and nurse him back to health after each session with the guards.

Molina finds catharsis by replaying in his mind the films of a glamourous movie star. (Gary Barringer)

Molina finds catharsis by replaying in his mind the films of a glamourous movie star. (Gary Barringer)

In keeping with the theme of escapism, Molina's coping mechanism to deal with the everyday brutality of his existence is to replay movies in his mind, particularly the films of glamourous movie star Aurora (Rochelle Kives). Molina is obsessed with the works of the curvy, old-school movie star, with the significant exception of her femme fatale turn as the "Spider Woman," a vamp whose kiss means death for her would-be lovers.

The musical, with a book by Terence McNally, premièred in 1990, but it feels like a topical choice by Dry Cold, juxtaposing fascism and escapism in a manner not dissimilar to Cabaret, which also featured a sexual outlaw weaving lurid fantasies in the face of a grim, brutal reality.

That dynamic resonates hard today, when people are debating the TV show Game of Thrones while a real-life geopolitical game of thrones with flesh-and-blood authoritarian players dominates the news section.

This scaled-back production is the first musical directed by Christopher Brauer (who directed Annie Baker's John at the Warehouse last month) and it is more successful in its dramatic moments than its musical ones.

One problem: Robert Boge's choreography is an ill fit. Unless it's in the context of a fantasy scene, standard jazz dance moves ring unseemly for the material, which calls for something more subtle than razzmatazz, perhaps even balletic.

Reid McTavish (left) and Matthew Fletcher are compelling as their relationship evolves throughout the musical drama. (Gary Barringer.)

Reid McTavish (left) and Matthew Fletcher are compelling as their relationship evolves throughout the musical drama. (Gary Barringer.)

But McTavish and Matthew Fletcher make for a compelling central couple, starting out with hostility and fear before the relationship moves towards a place of grace. McTavish offers something especially raw and heartfelt.

In the face of a lot of masculine energy on stage, the women in the cast have varying degrees of success providing a counterpoint. Donna Fletcher gets some moving moments as Molina's accepting mom, particularly in her song to son: You Could Never Shame Me, and joining with Scott in the powerful love song Dear One.

Kives vamps most satisfactorily, but her voice seems as weak as her stage presence is strong. She was frequently difficult to hear, and if any role requires a belter's back-row projection, it's this one.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
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In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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