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A Woman of Will

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

I know, I know, some of you are still smarting from missing Suzanne Somers's ecstatically trashy one-woman show, The Blonde in the Thunderbird, which came and went this past July. To all of you, I say: Kick yourselves no longer! You can recreate most of the experience if you hightail it to the Daryl Roth Theatre, where A Woman of Will just opened.

To be fair, this show - I'm not yet ready to call it a musical - isn't quite the Vegas-y nightmare that one was. But it's no less self-indulgent, no less tacky, and no less difficult to sit through. Good intentions do not necessarily a good show make, even when they come from librettist-lyricist-star Amanda McBroom and composer-lyricist-director Joel Silberman. They were obviously trying for something profound, but what they've delivered is profoundly awful.

Set in a Cleveland Holiday Inn - no, I'm not kidding - A Woman of Will examines one day in the life of Kate (McBroom), a talented writer who's been hired to provide lyrics for a new musical. The show, an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice set in 1959 Cuba and starring Jennifer Lopez (again, I'm not making this up), is in desperate need of an 11-o'clock number for its star, and Kate has less than a day to finish it.

But she's suffering from problems with her demanding agent, her annoyed husband, her doting boyfriend, and the show's impatient director, and she's ready to give up on all of it, until she returns to the Good Book from which she's always found solace. No, not The Bible - The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Flipping through its pages, she tries to draw strength from Shakespeare's greatest heroines and villainesses, from Juliet and Ophelia to Goneril and Lady Macbeth, in hopes she'll be able to tap into her inner poet. And, yes, this is the entire show: Monologue, Shakespeare-inspired song; monologue, Shakespeare-inspired song.

That the songs, which are orchestrated by Larry Hochman and played under the musical direction of Sam Davis, cover a wide range of styles is beside the point; frankly, I'm not sure Helen Reddy, 70s disco, or Broadway power ballad are appropriate styles for anything seriously lifted from the Bard. (Nor am I certain what significance, if any, can be drawn from the music to which Kate must write her lyric - it sounds nearly identical to Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe.") Given that this is the language Kate respects and wraps herself in, it's not surprising she can't give voice to Portia; she'd probably be happier at All Shook Up.

Perhaps this might be forgivable with a better book. The few wrought lines Kate babbles between songs like "Lady Macbeth Sings the Blues" and "The Hard to Be a Fairy Blues" (for The Tempest's Ariel) are roughly comparable to the connecting material in some of today's "better" jukebox musicals, and tell you scarcely more about Kate than you learn of the characters in those shows. A series of voicemail messages left from the other players in Kate's saga - voiced by stars like André De Shields, Alix Korey, and Jim Dale - only highlight the vapidity of the enterprise and the lack of a story and characters we can legitimately care about.

One suspects that this material might fare better in a revue format, with no pretense of story to stand in the way of the songs. Then again, lyrics like "My moods are swinging like an Ellington Tune / There can be no doubt... / The bitch is out!" and "There's nothing wrong with melodies / From meadowlarks and bumble bees / But give me some Sinatra or some K.D. Lang" could only benefit from having as much in their way as possible.

To her credit, McBroom grandly plies her way from start to finish, doing everything humanly possible to avoid looking and sounding foolish. She does surprisingly well, somehow managing to maintain a stature and maturity that make her watchable even when her material is at its campiest. And at least her song interpretations, alternately sensitive, sensual, and sinuous, are of the chameleonic professional caliber we have the right to expect from someone with McBroom's experience.

But it might be best for her - and unsuspecting audiences - if she stuck with songwriting and left playwriting to those more able to determine ideas and develop them into compelling drama. Her only moment of real cleverness is the title: The word "will" refers not just to Kate's personal fortitude but also the indomitable Mr. Shakespeare. And, though it wasn't McBroom's intention, it's also a best-heeded suggestion of the legal document you should have in order before attending.

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A Woman of Will
Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes, with no intermission
Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 East 15th Street at 20 Union Square East, between 15th and 16th Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge