Regional Reviews: San Francisco
An Engaging Production of the Musical Vanities
Jack Heifner's original Vanities opened Off-Broadway at Westside Theatre on March 22, 1976, and featured a young Kathy Bates. The audience loved this heart-on-the-sleeve show so much that it ran 1,785 performances. HBO did a production in 1981 with Meredith Baxter, Shelley Hack and Annette O'Toole playing the three roles (never offered on DVD, unfortunately for the many fans of the fascinating play).
David Kirshenbaum became interested in making a musical version about a year and a half ago. The composer convinced Jack Heifner to write the libretto, drawing from and expanding on his 1975 play. There were readings of the musical in October of 2005 at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto plus a reading in New York. There have been slight changes in the one hour and 40 minute intermissionless production since the readings. This production also tells what happened to the ladies after the 1970s in an epilogue. As Jack Heifner said in an interview with Kenneth Jones of Playbill, people have told him that they can't tell where his words stop and David's words start.
David Kirshenbaum, who composed the music and lyrics for The Summer of '42, which also had its premiere at TheatreWorks five years ago, has written a score with a '60s pop feel that echoes the girl group songs of the era. There are snippets of rhythm and blues, a little Burt Bacharach, Carole King and Carly Simon in the melodies and lyrics. I even thought I heard a little of Sondheim in the song "In the Same Place" toward the end of the production.
Vanities opens on the fateful day of November 22, 1963 in a gymnasium in a small town high school somewhere in Texas. The three high school cheerleaders swear that they will always be together through thick and thin. Their world centers around their own activities as cheerleaders, being the head of dance committees, and of course boys. However, they won't let their boyfriends "go too far." They don't even realize that on that day, the President of the United States has been gunned down on the streets of Dallas. They think it was the president of the school council.
Kathy (Leslie Kritzer) is the head cheerleader and the smartest one of the trio. She is a real go-getter who organizes school events and dances, and can make anything using chicken wire and Kleenex into a work of art for theme dances. Mary (Megan Hilty) is the fast one of the group who enjoys boys much too much. She has a boyfriend who is a football player and he gives her gifts like his football sweater for certain sexual favors. Joanne (Sarah Stiles) is something of a mousey air head who is very shy and upholds a very high moral ground with her boyfriend, Ted (we never see Ted, but he is central to the theme of the musical).
The musical follows the three girls to college where, during the spring of 1968, they are senior members of an exclusive sorority house. There are more serious issues going on in the world, including anti-Vietnam War movement. Mary joins the movement while Joanne, who is still going steady with high school boyfriend Ted, becomes a typical all American apple pie woman who wants to get married and have kids. Kathy becomes the person in the middle of any political discussion. You begin to see cracks in their relationship as they go their separate ways.
The third and final scene takes place in an upscale Manhattan penthouse where Kathy is mysteriously living with another person. Joanne has become a stay-at-home mom with her high school sweetheart, who seems to always stay at the office. We get the idea that Ted is one loose character who has had affairs with both of the other women. Joanne is raising three kids with a fourth one on the way and she takes to drinking away her problems.
Mary is a sophisticated person who owns a successful up market art gallery selling expensive porno items to shock people, like a six foot neon erection. After a few drinks, sparks fly in all directions as the women become something out of The Women.
Director Greenberg, who recently directed the Off-Broadway revival of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the Zipper Theatre, has assembled a dynamic trio of young actresses. Each has a unique voice and they are a rich polyrhythmic trio when singing the girl trio songs. Sarah Stiles (Broadway's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and the national tour of Dr. Dolittle) as Joanne has a voice reminiscent of that of Kristin Chenoweth. She is snazzy in song "In the Same Place" in the last scene.
Megan Hilty (Wicked on Broadway) as Mary has a vibrant voice, especially in the potent rendition of "Fly into the Future." She belts out this song with great enthusiasm.
Leslie Kritzer (Broadway's Hairspray and Off-Broadway's Bat Boy and The American Trailer Park Musical) as Kathy has feisty chops when singing "Friendship Isn't What It Used To Be."
Carmel Dean leads the ten piece orchestra for great backup of the '60s and '70s melodies. John Arnone has designed some very effective sets, from a high school gym look, to an oh-so-cute sorority house which has three beds that reflect the characters' style, to a distinguished patio in a luxurious penthouse in Manhattan. Dan Knechtges who choreographed Spelling Bee seems to have done similar things with the dances in the first scene in the gym.
Vanities is a wonderful chamber piece that shows the evolution of friendship and how nothing quite turns out the way we think as teenagers. Many who identify with these three women had friends like these when in high school. The whole musical is about friendship and how things change between friends as they get older.
Vanities plays at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro St, Mountain View through July 16th. Their next production will be Donald Margulies' Brooklyn Boy opening at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield, Palo Alto on July 19 and running through August 13th.