Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Believe it or Not, I Enjoyed the "Women on the Verge" Musical

Yes, even though Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown got awful reviews, when I saw a preview performance of it toward the end of October, I had a good time. And lest you think that I was merely dazzled because I hadn't seen a Broadway musical in four years, the friend who I was with also liked it... and she lives in New York and sees practically every Broadway show.

Women on the Verge is not going on my list of "favorite" or "greatest" musicals, but I enjoyed myself, and without feeling like I was enjoying something that was "beneath me." As I read through the collected reviews on StageGrade, my opinions probably align best with John Lahr's or Jesse Oxenfeld's (both in the "B" range). I liked how the show is a genuine musical comedy that didn't feel the need to poke fun at the fact that it's a musical comedy. It felt old-fashioned, in the sense that it's a musical that mostly just aimed to please, but it wasn't hokey, or a nostalgia trip. I enjoyed the farce plot and the crazy complications and the emphasis on female characters.

My friend and I agreed that the Women on the Verge creative team must have had Nine on the brain. Just like Nine, Women on the Verge is based on a well-known foreign film that came out about 20 years before the musical did. These shows offer Americans the chance to see a show with "exotic, passionate" Mediterranean flavor, eavesdropping on the messed-up love lives of a big ensemble of characters. And both have lots of great roles for women.

(Mightn't it be fun to produce Nine and Women on the Verge in rep?) (This is why I am not a producer.) (Oops, except that I am.)

Probably my favorite part of the show was the cast that Lincoln Center Theatre assembled to bring the outsize characters to life. Patti LuPone plays Lucia, who is at least as crazy and as vengeful as that other famous Lucia (I mean the one from Lammermoor). She kicks up her heels to a '60s-style pop number in Act One, gives the full diva treatment to a ballad of lament called "Invisible" in Act Two, and makes all of her one-liners more funny than they have any right to be. LuPone has pointed out that this is her first time creating a role in a new musical in 35 years, and she's obviously having the time of her life.

Even better is Laura Benanti, who, as everyone will tell you, steals the show in the role of Candela, a ditzy fashion model. She is gorgeous and hilarious, and her patter song "Model Behavior" is the highlight of the night. There aren't enough patter songs -- particularly patter songs for women -- in the modern musical theater! Indeed, David Yazbek's score could have used a few more of them, especially if he wants to convey the sense of being "on the verge of a nervous breakdown." The main character, Pepa, played by Sherie Rene Scott, mostly has bland ballads to sing--and Scott, la pobrecita, is unfortunately upstaged by special effects (a burning bed) during her big solo.

The Broadway staging featured elaborate projections that have been the source of much criticism. However, because my seat was high up in the balcony, I didn't really notice the projections upstage, because I was mostly focused on the actors downstage. Perhaps this is one show where it's better to sit in the balcony than in the orchestra?

I won't comment too much more on Women on the Verge, because it was still a work in progress the night I saw it (October 24). I gather that the opening number of the show is now a lively salute to Madrid, but when I saw it, the "Madrid" song was at the start of Act II, and Act I opened with all the women singing a yearning song called "My Crazy Heart." I also hope that the production team had a chance to work up a better set for the scenes that take place at the courthouse. As I mentioned, the show is full of colorful, shifting projections. But, during the courthouse scenes, the stage was bare and white, save two drops painted with sketchy Ionic columns, like something from a high-school play. Hideous and very cheap-looking, especially compared with the color and motion that otherwise filled the stage.

As I said, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is not a great musical--the score just doesn't contain enough first-rate songs. But it was a perfectly entertaining evening of theater, and I wouldn't dissuade anyone from going to see it, particularly if they want to see some excellent musical-comedy performances from LuPone and Benanti.


Dr.J said...

Well, glad you enjoyed it; maybe you want an impression about Almodovar from Spain. I don´t like his films, but am particularly tired of his stance in politics, media and even sexual affairs. You can watch a "queer" video of him in the title is expresive enough (parental permission recommended).
Women on the one of his best films, particularly for the actresses work.

Marissa said...

Dr. J., I knew I could count on you to comment on this post!

I rented "Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios" after seeing the musical, and enjoyed that too.