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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Knockout cast powers Vanities: A New Musical
at ACT Theatre

Also see David's reviews of The Drowsy Chaperone and The Brothers Size

Vanities
Billie Wildrick, Cayman Ilika and Jennifer Sue Johnson
Jack Heifner's mega-popular (1,785 performance) Off-Broadway play Vanities from 1976 was musicalized and performed in several cities, with many changes in each production over the past five years or so, including a generally panned version Off-Broadway in 2009. Much revised since Off-Broadway, Vanities: A New Musical at ACT Theatre (in a co-production with the 5th Avenue Theatre) has its weaknesses as written, but the production itself, confidently directed by 5th Ave honcho David Armstrong and employing a titanically talented trio of actresses, is what the original show was at its best, an unabashed crowd pleaser.

The tale of the life journeys of three Texas cheerleaders is told in a series of intermission-less scenes, though where the play covered the early '60s through the mid-'70s, the musical adds a coda set approximately in the early '90s. Joanne is the sweet-natured future homemaker who becomes a sadder but wiser divorcee; Mary is the wily, driven, avant-garde party girl; and Kathy is the planner who can't seem to find her own life plan, and evolves into a kept woman. As time passes, the trio splinters, only to find some renewal of their friendship when they attend the funeral of Mary's mother. Heifner's script deftly balances humor and pathos, and captures the feeling one has when looking through old photo albums and yearbooks. It is not a profound tale but it still strikes a chord, and composer/lyricist David Kirshenbaum's lyrics are deft and capable extensions of the script, though his often pleasant but generic music seldom rises above average, with the exception of the strong number "Friendship Isn't What it Used to Be."

Director Armstrong has set the show at a bright pace that seldom flags, stages the numbers with verve, and proves a solid actor's director, given the chance here to direct a chamber musical rather than the extravaganzas he usually helms at the 5th Avenue. Each of the three actresses is shown to terrific advantage in an ensemble performance that still allows their solo skills to shine. Jennifer Sue Johnson garners all of Joanne's laughs in the early-going, expertly showing her slide into caustic alcoholism and bitterness. Billie Wildrick perhaps endows her Mary with the subtlest and most define growth of character, and somehow keeps her from becoming too much of a bitch. Cayman Ilika is fascinating as the enigmatic Kathy, and employs her rich, lower vocal tones with a near hypnotic skill. The trio sound great together under Ian Eisendrath's most accomplished musical direction, supported by a quintet of expert musicians.

Matthew Smucker's ideal scenic designs employ iconic elements of each era represented, and the physical vanities at which the ladies dress and age themselves throughout are most attractive. Tom Sturge's lighting design is attractive and always apt, while Catherine Hunt's costumes handsomely evoke the changing times and a few, particularly one of Wildrick's saucier outfits, are just dazzling.

Vanities is slated to run into early May—a rather lengthy run for a local theatre these days—but if the audience response at the performance I caught is any indication, it may be around well into the summer, with its surefire mixture of laughter and tears.

Vanities: A New Musical runs through May 1st at ACT's Falls Theatre. For tickets or information you can contact ACT's office at 206-292-7676 or visit them online at www.acttheatre.org or the 5th Avenue Theatre box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.


Photo: Chris Bennion

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.



- David Edward Hughes



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