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Vanities

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Vanities
Lauren Kennedy is the blonde, Sarah Stiles the brunette, and Anneliese Van Der Pol the redhead.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

For proof of how dangerously safe and hopelessly uninventive talented musical writers can be if not closely monitored, one needs only look as far as the new Second Stage Theatre production of Vanities, a New Musical. Refashioned by Jack Heifner from his hit 1976 play, this viciously well-meaning musical argues in favor of exactly what Heifner argued against 33 years ago. That Heifner and composer-lyricist David Kirshenbaum have essentially adapted the work by replacing dialogue with songs that say less than the words did is the flavorless icing on an already poorly leavened cake.

That (or some variant of it) is the modus operandi for so many musicals today that theatre lovers should probably give up being surprised. But this abrasively upbeat production, which as directed by Judith Ivey and choreographed by Dan Knechtges started at the Pasadena Playhouse last year and announced a spring Broadway run that never materialized, has shockingly few teeth even for a bubble-gum outing. You would expect at least 32 from a story centering on three small-town Texas girls who live only for popularity in all its forms, but no. By making this “everyone’s” idea of a contemporary musical, Heifner and Kirshenbaum have stripped it of any and all timeless bite.

This is a radical departure for Vanities, which as a play racked up a mammoth run by its precise skewering of the paper-thin girl mystique and refusal to make any allowances for its trio’s vapidity. You saw how they transitioned from high-school cheerleaders to college sorority hotshots and finally untethered adults. You got to know how the socially and sexually adventurous Mary, the obsessive-planner-turned-walking-nervous-breakdown Kathy, and the blindly conservative Joanne became, and maintained or cracked, their one-dimensional facades by questing for acceptance from without rather than from within.

The musical has retained the basic characterizations, the conceit of the actresses changing costumes in full view of the audience at mirrored-furniture set pieces (though they look more like armoires than vanities), and the general structure that tracks how the girls mature (or don’t) over the next 10 years. What it adds to the story is a “fourth act,” to supplement the original three (set in 1963, 1968, and 1974) and suggest that no fence is ever too broken to be mended by sticky platitudes.

But without the darker, more ominous undertones on which the original play thrived, the fights and reconciliations along the way are meaningless. The first third of the play ended with the girls blithely waving off President Kennedy’s assassination by cheering that that evening’s football game would go on as scheduled; the corresponding section of the musical climaxes with a song called “I Can’t Imagine,” in which the three pledge eternal friendship. It’s such reconfiguring that makes this Vanities seem like Kirshenbaum and Heifner’s attempt to stake a claim to the theatregoing dollars of young women who’ve outgrown Wicked and Legally Blonde rather than any sort of an artistic or dramatic statement.

Vanities
Lauren Kennedy is the blonde, Sarah Stiles the brunette, and Anneliese Van Der Pol the redhead.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The score is a particular disappointment, as Kirshenbaum is a major up-and-coming talent. If he miscalculated with his Brazil-tinged, by-the-numbers musical-comedy writing for Party Come Here, his intentionally awkward and emotionally discordant songs for Summer of ’42 were alternately hilariously and hauntingly right for an adolescent coming-of-age saga. What he’s written here feels like the melodic equivalent of giving up, a too-willing adherence to an instruction in the original script that advises the “music must not make a statement. It should be incidental.”

The tone is set early on with cunningly inspirational numbers like the wistful “Setting Your Sights” and the blandly optimistic “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” for the teens and “Let Life Happen” for the sorority sisters. Even more directly character-centric numbers - like Mary’s “Fly Into the Future” about breaking away from her mother’s bad example, Kathy’s “Cute Boys With Short Haircuts” about the aftermath of her breakup with her long-term boyfriend, and Kathy’s attempt to patch old wounds with “The Same Old Music” - feel more like half-finished BMI Workshop exercises than vital theatrical elements.

As Heifner has released or rewritten so little of his dialogue, perhaps Kirshenbaum didn’t have a choice - musicals can only truly sing if they’re allowed the chance. Ivey’s fluid staging, which makes full use of Anna Louizos’s cozily elegant sets and Joseph G. Aulisi’s period-evocative costumes, tries to compensate, but can’t; Knechtges’s dances, while spirited, are as one dimensional as the songs to which they’re attached. The same is true of Lauren Kennedy’s performance as the free-wheeling Mary and Sarah Stiles’s as the considerably toned-down Joanne - they sing prettily, but evince no sense of who these women are, or where are why they’re going.

Anneliese van der Pol, however, is a different case. As Kathy, she makes a complete and convincing evolution from the work-focused girl to the wayward woman who can’t stop searching for her true purpose. She’s the only one of the three actresses that effects physical changes throughout, popping her initial inner bubbliness for the college moments and adopting a stylish, creamy sophistication for the post-school scenes that give her a grace and a confidence no one else has. She even modulates her otherwise obvious three-part song, “An Organized Life,” from a slice of comic nothing into a burst tender tragedy that almost makes you feel for all she’s lost and gained.

Of course, just minutes later, Mary, Kathy, and Joanne walk off into a literal sunset to the strains of a final bit of musical banality, “Looking Good,” which attempts to trade on the irony that these women who were once obsessed with personal and societal appearance have indeed made something real of themselves after all. Cue the awws. It’s the perfect feel-fine ending for everyone except those who believe, unlike Vanities’s characters and writers, that musicals - like life - can and should be more than skin-deep.


Vanities
Through August 9
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre