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Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 4, 2010

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown A New Musical Based on the Film by Pedro Almodóvar. Book by Jeffrey Lane. Music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli. Sets by Michael Yeargan. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Brian MacDevitt. Sound by Scott Lehrer. Projections by Sven Ortel. Aerial design by The Sky Box. Special effects by Gregory Meeh. Wigs and hair by Charles LaPointe. Make-up by Dick Page. Orchestrations by Simon Hale. Additional orchestrations by Jim Abbott & David Yazbek. Cast: de'Adre Aziza, Laura Benanti, Danny Burstein, Justin Guarini, Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Mary Beth Peil, Sherie Rene Scott, Julio Agustin, John Carroll, Alma Cuervo, Murphy Guyer, Rachel Bay Jones, Nina Lafarga, Yanira Marin, Sean McCourt, Vivian Nixon, Luis Salgado, Jennifer Sanchez, John Schiappa, Samantha Shafer, Phillip Spaeth, Matthew Steffens, Charlie Sutton.
Theatre: Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Audience: May be inappropriate for 14 and under. Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Ticket prices: $36.50 – $126.50
Tickets: Telecharge

Sherie Rene Scott
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

When you enter the newly restored Belasco, where the musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown just opened under the auspices of Lincoln Center Theater, you may expect to see more vibrant colors in the architecture, reinstated Tiffany (or Tiffany-style) glass ornamentation in the lobby and ceiling, and even boxes that have been absent since the days of the original production of The Rocky Horror Show. And you will indeed get all these things. But the show curtain is another matter entirely. Rather than being an elegant, eye-popping extension of the gorgeous house around you, it is a recipe for gazpacho. Written entirely in Spanish.

If you're familiar with the Pedro Almodóvar movie on which Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Yazbek (score) based the musical, this requires no further explanation. After all, rare is the stage play—or movie, for that matter—in which soup plays such a crucial role, so the summery tomato-based concoction does stand out here. But beyond that, showing the audience something so pedestrian as the crowning detail in uniquely opulent surroundings is a highly fitting metaphor for the show itself. This adaptation, which has been directed by Bartlett Sher, may be many things—including inventively designed and spectacularly cast (at least on paper)—but exciting is not one of them.

Part of the problem is the source material itself. The 1988 Spanish film lives up to its title as a clear-minded yet quirky comedy about how one man named Ivan directly or indirectly ruins the lives of a number of women. The camera let Almodóvar make especially intimate the insanities Ivan inflicted on his ex-wife Lucia, ex-mistress Pepa, and current fling Paulina, without losing sight of the ever-lurching world they all inhabited. With everything so focused through these experiences, you witnessed these women's upsets just as they did: as the alpha and omega of existence, with a scope that could only broaden when the immediate threat was addressed.

But because the movie needs no expanded feelings, additional plot developments, or for its lively Madrid setting to be opened up at all, it could and should have been predicted that translating it all to the stage would diffuse its riveting, manic outlook to the point of distraction. What could not be known ahead of time was the exact extent. Lane and Yazbek, who collaborated on the 2005 musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, are not untalented in the vernacular of modern musical comedy, and thus would seem likely to be able to extract some nuggets of comic gold from even an idea this dicey.

Brian Stokes Mitchell, Nina Lafarga, and Justin Guarini
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Unfortunately, though Yazbek's good at writing flavor (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was appealingly carefree, The Full Monty was full of working-man backbeats), character is one of his weaker points. He has no trouble capturing the rhythm and excitement of his setting (Simon Hale's insinuating orchestrations help a great deal), but the mental machinations of all of his lead characters elude him.

Yazbek finds no passion or sympathy in Ivan, loading him down with surface-skimming numbers about his sexy voice ("The Microphone") or his womanizing ("Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today"), while peppering the central role of Pepa with directionless numbers like "Lie to Me" and the ballad "Mother's Day," oddly sung at the height of her madness. Even Lucia gets two songs, "Time Stood Still" and "Invisible," tell you nothing about her that you couldn't divine from a one-paragraph plot synopsis. Only the first-act finale, in which all Ivan's romances collide, do the breathless plot, style, tone synchronize in a satisfying way.

Lane and Sher have it tougher still. Because the plot revolves around things that are only magnified because of the scorned female mind, they can't fill the theater in any reasonable way. When Ivan (Brian Stokes Mitchell) dumps Pepa (Sherie Rene Scott) remotely, she learns it by listening to her answering machine—its single red light her last souvenir of her romance—and throws it and the attached phone offstage more than once. Later, Pepa sets her bed on fire, the flames and smoke so neatly managed that the desperate act generates no tension whatsoever. And Pepa's famous gazpacho, which knocks out pretty much everyone else in the show after she laces it with Valium, is represented by both tiny glasses and a blender used in Pepa's upstage kitchen.

If great film tricks aren't necessarily good theatre tricks, the designers have done everything imaginable to build a sweeping show from such microscopic elements. Plenty of sliding walls and flying set pieces (Michael Yeargan), Technicolor costumes (Catherine Zuber), hyperactive lights (Brian MacDevitt), and wall-filling animation projections (Sven Ortel) ensure a nonstop flood of color and motion. But in a musical, such forward energy is supposed to be provided by jokes, songs, and electric performances; entrancing and elaborate as they may be, the visuals can't compensate when so much else is static to the point of Super Glued.

Laura Benanti
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Scott, forced to tamp down her natural exuberance, reads less tormented than she does annoyed, as if she broke a nail just before a dinner party. Mitchell plays Ivan with the appropriate stuffed-shirt bravado, but wears a smirk throughout that makes it difficult to take him seriously as a love-loving Lothario oblivious to his impact on every woman he meets. Ivan's son and his fiancée are played as well as possible by Justin Guarini (the first-ever runner-up on American Idol) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone, though their roles as intermediaries for more powerful and interesting people grant them few jokes and fewer moments in the spotlight.

As Ivan's soft-bitten and tightly wound lawyer and presently burning flame, de'Adre Aziza can't use as much of her natural charm or sexiness as she was when she appeared at this same theater in Passing Strange in 2008. Danny Burstein is likewise shoehorned into Pepa's flamboyant cab driver, a role that lacks the earthy grounding Burstein was able to ride to such success as Luther Billis in Sher's revival of South Pacific. And die-hard Patti LuPone fans will be shocked that she's appearing here in the underwritten supporting role of Lucia, which requires an ironic self-consciousness that results in an awkward and hollow utilization of LuPone's specific gifts.

The only performer allowed to have legitimate fun, and thus the only one who's any fun to watch, is Laura Benanti. As Pepa's friend, a model named Candela, she's largely incidental to the story, but the actress injects her with such obsessive-compulsive seriousness it hardly matters. Whether trying to get Pepa on the phone (in an epic, pointless number called “Model Behavior”), vamping a couple of prying detectives, or even just absorbing the effects of that drugged soup, Benanti alone balances the joy of living with the aggravations of daily life.

In doing so, she embodies Almodóvar far better than anyone else involved. The delight Benanti takes in being oblivious to the crumbling world around her is precisely the quality every character needs to have, but that Lane and Yazbek's writing essentially prevent. In the goopy gazpacho of this musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Benanti is both the sugar and the spice.

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