Also see Sharon's review of An Italian Straw Hat: A Vaudeville
There's something almost satisfying about a musical that basically says the popular girls really were shallow and insecure. And the idea that they don't have the perfect futures they'd anticipatedbonus! But once the schadenfreude wears off, and you actually want to connect to the characters, Vanities doesn't give you much.
Based on Jack Heifner's play of the same name, and with Heifner writing the book and David Kirshenbaum the score, Vanities follows three best friends through three scenes and an epilogue (the last is a scene added for the musical adaptation). The first scene, taking place in a 1963 high school locker room where the three girls practice their cheers and get ready for the pep rally, is by far the weakest. The characters are broadly drawnthere's the blonde who stuffs her bra and can't spell "Tigers" in the cheer, the redhead who is the leader and plans everything on an ever-present clipboard, and the squeaky brunette who aims for a picture-perfect life as a wife and mother. The scene has three musical numbers, two of which say little about the characters other than they're best pals for lifea theme Kirshenbaum returns to at least two more times in the musical. (In a show with only 12 numbers, not counting reprises, having a full third of the songs on the same topic results in diminishing returns.) By the time the scene ends, with the girls displaying a nearly unbelievable callousness to the Kennedy assassination, the thought of spending two more scenes with this threesome is somewhat less than appealing.
Things pick up dramatically in the second scene. By now, it's 1968 and the girls are planning sorority events for their last year in college. But what gives the scene some punch is that there are cracks developing in the friendship. Mary, the blonde, is taking notice of the social changes around her, and while the other two are content to live in their safe little bubble, Mary wants to get out. Lauren Kennedy has a smooth, beautiful voice, and when she lets loose on "Fly Into the Future"Mary's optimistic declaration of independenceshe makes us fervently hope Mary succeeds. The 1968 scene also gives us the show's first real ballad, "Cute Boys With Short Haircuts," sung by Kathy (the redhead) about losing the only boyfriend she ever had. Anneliese van der Pol has a very delicate delivery here, as though on the verge of tears. The song builds to the point where she's screaming the linesthe dam has burst and she's letting all of her anger out. While it is delightful to finally have real characters on stage with real emotions, one wonders whether it was absolutely necessary to spend so much time on the superficiality of the girls in the first scene. It's clear that their shallowness is an intentional plot pointa starting point for the journey they were going to takebut spending too long establishing characters as uninteresting risks losing the audience entirely.
The third woman gets her chance to shine in the third scenewhen our trio reunites in 1974. Joanne becomes interesting simply because she has failed to let the world change her. Having followed her life plan to the letter, she finds it difficult to relate to her two former best friends who have moved on. Eternally perky (Sarah Stiles plays her somewhere between Mary Tyler Moore and Minnie Mouse), Joanne just wants their friendship to be how it used to be (much like she wants the world to be how it used to be), and Stiles nearly brings down the house with her rousing "The Same Old Music." The show's book also gets a good airing here, as friendly dialogue quickly turns into a verbal cat fight, and the three snipe at each other beneath increasingly-false smiles, leading up to a conclusion that's anything but friendly.
As for the epiloguea brief visit to the ladies in 1990it's the sort of fundamentally problematic scene that makes you question whether Vanities could ever be successfully musicalized. As a musical, it demands closure, and some sort of happy ending. But a happy ending feels like a betrayal of what came before. The friendship was irretrievably broken in 1974, and the idea that, after enough time has passed the women will choose to cling to the friendship they had back when they were silly cheerleaders, cheapens the characters that Vanities ultimately developed.
As a play, Vanities is a drama class staple, as it provides scenes for three actresses. The musical might ultimately have the same fate; it's easy to envision high school students singing the high school songs about staying friends for life. But as Broadway-calibre entertainment, it needs more substance.
Vanities runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through September 28, 2008. For tickets and information, see www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.
Pasadena PlayhouseSheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Brian Colburn, Managing Director; Tom Ware, Producing Director; Produced by special arrangement with Junkyard Dog Productions and Bartner/Jenkins Entertainmentproudly presents Vanities, a New Musical. Book by Jack Heifner; Music and Lyrics by David Kirshenbaum; Based on the original play Vanities by Jack Heifner. Scenic Design Anna Louizos; Costume Design Joseph G. Aulisi; Lighting Design Paul Miller; Sound Design Tony Meola; Hair and Wig Design Josh Marquette; Press Representative Patty Onagan; Casting Michael Donovan, C.S.A., Jay Binder, C.S.A./Sara Schatz; Associate Director Richard Roland; Production Stage Manager Pat Sosnow; Assistant Stage Manager Lea Chazin. Orchestrations by Lynne Shankel; Musical Direction and Vocal Arrangements by Carmel Dean; Musical Staging By Dan Knechtges; Directed by Judith Ivey.