BWW REVIEWS: World Regional Premiere of WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN Is Expertly Done, Coolly Received
David Yazbek has shown himself to be a Broadway composer-lyricist to be reckoned with, after a splashy debut with 2000's "The Full Monty," and a meaningful follow-up with 2005's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." Both film adaptations, they won Drama Desk Awards for him, as well as Tony nominations. 2010's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown", also a film adaptation, was Tony-nominated for its score as well, though it suffered a truncated run of only 69 performances. A starry cast that included Sherie Rene Scott, Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Benanti, Danny Burstein, Mary Beth Peil and Justin Guarini was just not enough to ensure box office success for the production through Broadway's winter months. The show's London debut is set for January of 2015. But in the meantime, Theatre at the Center in the Chicago suburb of Munster, Indiana, is the location for the show's world regional premiere.
Based on the 1988 film of the same name, written and directed by Pedro Almodovar, and with a book by Jeffrey Lane, "Women on the Verge..." has been given another starry cast to populate its tale of lovelorn, mind-addled folks in 1980s Madrid, Spain. The number of Jeff Award wins and nominations among its cast is mind-boggling. And yet, the show unfortunately may be out to prove that farce is virtually impossible in the musical theater, save for the rule-proving exception of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Last Friday night, the Munster audience didn't know what to make of it all. They stuck with the show, but demonstrated a distinct lack of response. I spent yesterday trying to figure out why.
It can't be the quality of Yazbek's score, or the way in which it was performed. William Underwood's tight, six-member orchestra, with expert guitar work by Dave Saenger and percussion perpetual motion by Ethan Deppe (both Chicago's leaders in their fields, I think), lays out quite a case for the Spanish/jazz/pop fusion by Yazbek that comes hopping out of the backstage "pit." These are songs that should be heard, and should be performed.
And the cast, led by the sweet midlife warmth of Cory Goodrich, the blazing charisma and haute couture of Hollis Resnik and the unbelievable hotness of Summer Naomi Smart, delivered the songs on all counts, though perhaps the vocals could be stronger in Barry G. Funderburg's sound design. Colette Todd and Ami Silvestre's vocal contributions in smaller roles were equally adapt. Perhaps the strongest singing of the night belonged to the men, however. Larry Adams has probably never sounded better than he does here, deeper, brighter, and crisper. Nathan Gardner steps to the forefront of Chicago's young leading tenors with his perfectly placed singing as Adams' son. And as the Taxi Driver, a sort of narrator, sort of choral lead, sort of plot device, George Andrew Wolff shows his wide character range and mastery of language, stepping seamlessly and meaningfully into the role on short notice after the tragic death of actor Bernie Yvon earlier this month.
(While I'm on the subject of music, I should add that Dina DiCostanzo and Chris Carter make a hot and sexy dance couple, and that the ensemble of nine busy singers, dancers and character actors handles Danny Herman's saucy choreography and Brenda Winstead's costume changes--not to mention Kevin Barthel's wig designs--like it's all in a day's work. And what a day!)
We are told that writers Yazbek and Lane have made small modifications, rewrites and re-sequencing decisions prior to this production, though the order of the major song titles is the same as it was in New York (there is much room for changing around snippets of dialogue in a show like this, I would imagine). And perhaps this was a sort of tryout for the upcoming London production. But it seems as if the plot, clever and full of happenings as it is, just isn't really that funny. Nor is it particularly universal, nor, on the other hand, is it richly detailed and specific. This is neither a story like "South Pacific," in which we learn a great deal about the specific histories, lives and thoughts of all the lead characters, nor is it universal in theme, like "Fiddler on the Roof," where yet another community is torn apart by forces beyond its control, and all its inhabitants can do is fall back on the wisdom it received from its forebears.
Rather, we get a story about a successful actress (Pepa, played by Cory Goodrich, as committed a singing actress as ever) who learns that the man she is in love with (Ivan, played by Larry Adams) is married. Further, he is cheating on both her and his wife (Lucia, Hollis Resnik's character, who gets the brilliant song, "Invisible," after an overlong set-up), cheating with his wife's lawyer (played by Colette Todd). Pepa's friend, Candela (Summer Naomi Smart, who makes the most of her extended musical sequence, "Model Behavior"), is in love with a man who turns out to be a terrorist (is this part a little too close for comfort these days?). Ivan's son, Carlos (Gardner) is engaged to Marisa (DiCostanzo), but both of them have eyes for others. Oh, and Pepa is pregnant and is prone to making gazpacho laced with valium. There are trips to the courthouse, visits by police, a jumper, gunshots and whatnot. Oh, and even though Ivan has bedded three successful, beautiful and unique women, we barely even see him until the second act. Nor do we know why he's so awful. Got all that?
One quibble I have with William Pullinsi's direction is that everyone performs the show with Spanish accents. Now, they seemed well done to me, but I think they are entirely unnecessary. Every character in the show is Spanish. They don't sound "Spanish" to each other--they sound normal, don't they? Why should they sound Spanish to us? (The characters in "Les Miserables" don't sound French. The denizens of "The Sound of Music" don't sound Austrian.) This is an odd choice to me, but so be it. Otherwise, Pullinsi did a great job of securing the rights, casting all the right people, and tracking the movement of a great number of props (including two fast-moving vehicles, all designed by Jessie Howe). Ann N. Davis's scenic design, while not stereotypically Spanish, is evocative, spacious and interesting. And Shelley Strasser Holland's lights do a great job in delineating indoor and outdoor spaces, dream sequences and moods (sexy, farcical, wistful).
So, this is a mixed bag for me. There may be a story of women's empowerment somewhere in all the action and Latin rhythms of "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." There are certainly expert performances here, and memorable characters. But I can't say I learned much about life or myself through the show. Nor is it so hilarious that that stuff no longer matters. Maybe farce doesn't work so well on a large thrust stage. Maybe the plot is tied too closely to the conventions of filmmaking. Maybe it should just all go faster! Or maybe this show is this decade's "Candide" (great score, unwieldy book). You can go judge for yourself, as this production is certainly worth seeing. It's just a little bit earthbound, is all. And with talents like these on display, that's a bit disappointing.
PHOTOS (courtesy of Theatre at the Center): Cory Goodrich; Cory Goodrich (center) and Hollis Resnik (right), with Scott Stratton and the ensemble; Dina DiCostanzo and Nathan Gardner; Summer Naomi Smart.
WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN continues performances through October 12, 2014 at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road in Munster, Indiana. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays. $40-$44. For information and tickets, phone 219.836.3255 or visit www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com.