Review - Vanities: Who's That Woman?

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A good musical will often send audience members out of the theatre wanting to pick up a copy of the cast album. But the new musical version of Jack Heifner's 1976 Off-Broadway hit, Vanities, might send more than a few attendees to the public library to read a copy of the playscript, or at least hope for a full-on revival of the musical's source.

While I'd need copies of both texts in front of me to confirm my feeling that much of Heifner's book for the new piece has been simply cut and pasted from the original -- leaving scattered pockets of breathing room for songs -- plenty of the dialogue hit the ear like a familiar old friend and Second Stage's new offering only shines (and yes it does frequently shine quite brightly) when director Judith Ivey's and her trio of actors embrace the charm and innocent wit of the playwright's spoken word.

The three-woman tuner chronicles the lives and friendship of three Texans who thrive on the acceptance (and envy) of others, only to have individual setbacks force them to value what's beyond the mirror's reflection. The original was presented in three scenes; we first meet the trio in 1963 as inseparable and popular high school cheerleaders, then as '68 college sorority sisters whose individual goals seem to be loosening their bonds, and then as 28-year-olds who have grown so different from one another that their past seems to be all that binds them. The musical adds a sugar-frosted epilogue.

Sarah Stiles takes fine advantage of being granted the script's funniest lines as the shy, conventional and twangy Joanne, who dreams of a perfect life as a suburban mom and homemaker and brightens up the proceedings considerably when she gets one of those repressed-character-breaks-out-of-her-shell-with-a-rousing-tune solos. Anneliese van Der Pol and Lauren Kennedy have to work a bit harder to create any empathy for their roles as Kathy, the confident leader with a passion for organization and planning, and Mary, the sexual free-spirit who becomes a success managing a gallery of erotic art. (Though the former does an excellent job at physically reinventing herself for each passage of time.)

The problem lies not in the capabilities of the talented and fine-singing performers, but in the fact that Heifner and composer/lyricist David Kirshenbaum never justify the need for songs. The meat of the story-telling remains in the book while the platitude infested lyrics ("If your world stops at your own reflection, you've still got a long way to go.") tend to tread water rather than take the story anywhere. While the dialogue intrigues with its color and rhythm, music cues like "Life is full of surprises" and "Doesn't time fly by" serve as warnings of the innocuous melodies and repetitive words to come. To the composer/lyricist's credit, his music does effectively create a period mood for each scene and his method of making the show trio-heavy at first and then developing individual voices for each character as they emotionally separate makes for smart musical theatre dramatics. If those dramatics could be equaled in each song's content, Vanities might have a shot at being as successful as, well... Vanities.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles, Anneliese van Der Pol; Bottom: Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles, Anneliese van Der Pol

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From This Author Kristin Salaky