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Review: VANITIES THE MUSICAL, Trafalgar Studios, 6 September 2016

Adapted from Jack Heifner's 1970s stage play, Vanities the Musical makes its London debut at the intimate Trafalgar Studios. Joanne, Kathy and Mary, the show's only characters, tell an all-American story audiences world over will be familiar with, though in a bold new way, as three friends face the painful realities of adulthood.

Opening in 1963, we meet the girls in a Dallas high school as they prepare to cheerlead at a pep rally, each full of the hopes and dreams we've seen portrayed many times before in the likes of Grease and Hairspray. However, the musical takes a more interesting turn as it explores the reality of 'what happens next'.

Excited by the prospect of attending college, sorority life and bagging a husband, perhaps an amusing concept in 2016, director Racky Plews allows us to share in their sweet vulnerability with catchy songs full of hope and humour and clever staging, beginning each scene in a state of reflection, appropriately set in front of a dressing-room mirror.

Lizzy Connolly takes on the central comedic role of Joanne with her impeccably timed one-liners spoken in a convincing Southern drawl, while Lauren Samuels effortlessly captures Mary's rebellious streak as she shares her yearning to break free from the complacent desires of her friends in show-stopping number, "Fly into the Future". West End regular Ashleigh Gray shows off her wonderful vocals, too, as Kathy, the planner of the group, who shines with her heartfelt rendition of "Cute Boys with Short Haircuts".

The clever set, designed by Andrew Riley, allows the trio to age before us as they move between eras in their changing rooms, donning costumes and wigs representative of the time period as they transform before our eyes.

In the past this musical adaptation, by David Kirshenbaum, has received criticism for its 'weak score' overshadowed by a stronger plot, but that isn't the case in this latest version. The score is both strong and endearing, made so thanks to the believable friendship and woes captured and shared by the women, which give the songs real authenticity.

While the first half of the musical is full of cheer and laced with humour, the second half takes a very different turn as reality sets in. The significant tone change takes the musical from comedy to melodrama, with far more narrative. The pace slows and is a little sluggish in places, whilst the score takes a back seat as the plot becomes more drastic, though the poignant ending makes up for it.

In the intimate space of Studio 2, Heifner's production works well, with enough action and decent vocals to fill the small room, while the musical adaptation achieves a good balance of sweet and fluffy tunes with a refreshingly honest look at life after high school, and the changing opportunities given to women through the decades.

Vanities the Musical continues at Trafalgar Studios until 1 October.

Read our interview with Lauren Samuels

Picture credit: Pamela Raith

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