COUGAR THE MUSICAL Hits the Right Notes on the Older Woman-Younger Man Dating Phenomenon
Off-Broadway Musical Review by Stephen Hanks
Unless Cougar the Musical turned out to be a show with absolutely no redeeming value, I knew it was going to be tough for me to maintain objectivity for a review. You see, I've been a big fan of "cougars"-or as I call them "mature women"-since I was a mere cub. Growing up in the Bronx in the early '60s, I was fawned over by my grandmother's friends, who during the spring and summer months would sit kibitzing the day away in folding chairs outside our building. Whenever I walked by or had to search for my Spaldeen ball among the chairs, they would pinch my cheeks and tussle my thick mane of red hair. It was like running a geriatric gauntlet, but I kind of liked it. During my early elementary school years, my mom was just in her mid '20s and would regularly have a couple of her gorgeous girlfriends over for some schmoozing and fussing over Stevie. Guess what I dreamt about? Of course, during the school day there was one lovely student teacher after another to gawk at and worship. In college, I dated a fellow student who also happened to be a mom about 10 years older than me, and as a student intern on a magazine during my senior year, I had a relationship with my boss who was almost twice my age. Naturally, I ended up marrying a woman just a tad older than me.
So I've always been kind of proud being way ahead of my time when it came to appreciating "mature" females, but I never cottoned to the "Cougar" tag, which infiltrated the lexicon a bit more than a decade ago, and which stereotypes women of a certain age as desperate and predatory. Author Valerie Gibson attempted to set the record straight with her 2001 book "Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men," and tried to redefine the label as a word that stood for empowerment, independence, and an open-minded approach to sexuality among women over 40 who date younger men in their 30s, perhaps even in their 20s.
In Cougar the Musical (which actually is more of a revue than a full-blown book musical), librettist and lyricist Donna Moore (photo, right, who in 2007 performed The Cougar Cabaret at Don't Tell Mama) humorously embraces that same idea with the declaration that "inside the word C-O-U-R-A-G-E is Cougar," a notion that-at least for me-goes down as easily as the "Cougartini," the vodka and pomegranate juice cocktail the audience is served before the show. Thankfully, you don't have to be tipsy to enjoy this whimsical social commentary and musical tribute to mature women and the men who love them-or who at least want to bed them.
The show starts with a bang (sorry!) as three attractive women in their prime wearing dominatrix-like black trench coats with cougar print collars and belts dominate the stage for the pulsating "On the Prowl" (what else?). Moore sets the lyrical tone right out of the box with "Life is the rage in menopause stage/But I'm too young to throw in the towel/I'm out of my cage/A modern day sage/Just don't ask my age when I'm on the prowl."
The casting of the women could not have been better. Catherine Porter (Next to Normal on Broadway; Sunset Boulevard in London's West End) plays the attractive and reluctant cougar Lily, a two-time divorcee and children's birthday party entertainer, who shows up at "Over 40 and Fabulous" meetings wearing her Wizard of Oz Dorothy costume. Brenda Braxton (who played Velma Kelly opposite Usher in Chicago on Broadway, and who won a Tony nomination for Smokey Joe's Café) is Clarity, a smokin' senior financial analyst in her mid-40s with a side job at a Women's Crisis Center, who decides to write a thesis on the "cougar phenomenon," but in the end comes around to embrace her inner cougar. And the adorable Babs Winn plays Mary-Marie, a 50ish oversexed Southern Belle, who recites daily affirmations, owns a cougar bar called the "Elder Grille and Younger Boys Lounge," and in her dating website profile writes, "So into myself that being with me will be like being in a threesome." The cast is rounded out by the versatile Danny Bernardy (Moore's co-star in Cougar Cabaret), who plays a variety of different cougar prey (including guys named "Buck," "Twilight Dude," "Bourbon Cowboy," and "Naked Peter") and does a wonderfully funny turn as a beauty salon worker named Eve during one of the show's best musical numbers, "Shiny and New." (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
While you can see some of the jokes coming from a mile away ("I'd like to start a social media site called 'Facelift Book'," insists Lily early in the show), the messages about the dating double-standard get a bit redundant ("What do you call an older man who dates a younger woman? He's called 'man'"), and the score is dotted with unmemorable melodies (including Moore, there were six different composers, never a good recipe for musical consistency), Moore's book and her lyrics are often clever, witty, sensitive and inspirational, and-most importantly-non-judgmental. Her script even conveys a healthy affection and respect for the young guys who are way out of their league in dealing with these vital and vibrant women.
The three female stars do a superb job selling the songs, especially Porter (who is leaving the show after the September 16 performance for a Next to Normal tour and will be replaced by Mary Mossberg) on "Gary's Right," a poignant number about her recent travails with ex-husband number two, Winn on the humorously provocative "My Terms" ("So we should now get laid, my boy/No matter where you've been, I'll make you howl and scream for joy . . . As long as you're young, and really well hung/You can be a Muslim, a Jew or a Goy!"), and Braxton on "Julio," a hilarious ode to her battery-operated love toy, before she eventually settles on a real boy toy.
Cougar the Musical is a fun, fast-paced, intelligent, sexy show (with fine direction and choreography by Lynne Taylor-Corbett) that could have a long run at the St. Luke's (or any other Off-Broadway house), not the least of which because it should be extremely popular with middle-aged women tourists looking for a guilty pleasure they can take back home and talk about with their friends. Heck, if my wife lets me, I may even go back a few more times just to watch those would-be cougar ladies in the audience enjoy themselves. Who knows? They may even think I'm still cute enough that they'll want to pinch my cheeks-all four of them.
Cougar the Musical is playing at the St. Luke's Theatre, 308 West 46th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues). Performance times are: Wednesday and Friday at 8pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. For tickets call: 212 239-6200