The unlikely relationship between Molina, a timid, homosexual window dresser and Valentin, an idealistic, Marxist revolutionary, is the heart of this musical by Chicago and Cabaret creators John Kander and Fred Ebb. On the surface seemingly a hard sell for a musical; the duo, well known for exploiting the out of the ordinary for source material, created a haunting and provocative show.
In order to escape the daily brutalities of prison life, Molina conjures up fantasies of 1940's B-Movie actress Aurora, a screen siren whose most famous role The Spider Woman could kill with a kiss. At first resistant, Valentin gradually realises the power of Molina's celluloid fantasies to liberate the pair from the hell of their prison cell, but complications arise in the form of a prison warder bribing Molina to spy in return for a reunion with his beloved mother. As the pair's relationship develops we discover just how far Molina is willing to go in the name of love.
This is a pared back staging from UCeLsewhere and the simplicity brings a fresh perspective to the show, placing the focus firmly on the relationship between the two men. The foreboding prison walls are simply and effectively realised but the film fantasies conjured up by Molina lack the glitter necessary to highlight their transformational effect and the much-needed visual contrast to the grimness of prison life. The choreography is ambitious and deserves credit for being so. It shows the influence of long-time Kander and Ebb collaborator Bob Fosse in every step, however it lacks a bit in execution, the ensemble are clearly not all dancers. They are, however, of fine voice, truly uplifting when singing as one and both the lighting design and sound are top-notch.
Standout among the cast is Ben Whittle: his subtly nuanced performance perfectly conveys Molina's heartbreaking anguish, he is also in possession of an impressively crystal clear voice. As Aurora, Stephanie Epperlein certainly evokes the look of a Latina screen goddess but her voice lacks strength in its lower register and essential lyrics are lost. In contrast, the sublime 'Dear One' sung by Molina and his mother alongside Valentin and his love Marta, is so beautiful it provides a genuine goosebump moment.
Any problems with this show lie not with this highly skilled company but the musical itself. There's a reason why it is little revived: to do justice to the themes and to realise the golden age of film fantasy sequences takes expertise and resources beyond almost all amateur theatre companies. That said this is a fine attempt by a tremendously talented cast and a rare opportunity to see a seldom staged show.