Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Book by Jeffrey Lane based on the film by Pedro Almodovar
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Featuring Sherie Rene Scott, Patti Lupone, Laura Benanti, Danny Burstein
Belasco  Theatre, 111 West 44th Street
production web site: http://www.lct.org/showMain.htm?id=197
November 4, 2010 — January 23, 2011 [announced]

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
December 18, 2010

Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone, Sherie Rene Scott, Nikka Graff Lanzarone. Photo by Ethan Hill.

The playbill, and our memories of the Pedro Almodovar movie upon which this musical extravaganza is based, tell us that the place and time are Madrid, 1987.  The three-story scrim/curtain  is covered with a projected faux handwritten recipe for gazpacho, with “un secreto”.  That secret- laced concoction provides a farcical magic potion for silencing a wide array of characters at key moments (repair men, policemen, sons of lovers,  friends and others) when other characters have something to say or work through or explore.  Yes, it’s farce, through Pink Panther-style cartoon colors and graphics.  And for the majority of the time, and with some stunning show stopping moments, this all works.  When it doesn’t work, the whole apparatus comes to a screeching, though visually entertaining, halt.

The plot focuses on the women surrounding a few men.  Pepa (Sherie Rene Scott) is a successful voice over/dubbing actress who has been having an affair with Ivan (in my performance played by Sean McCourt), and senses he is sniffing around elsewhere. Pepa’s girlfriend and ditzy model Candela (Laura Benanti) is a serial romantic, who has gotten involved with an intense man she suspects is a “terrorist” (first clue: the grenade belt he dons one morning).  Ivan’s wife Lucia (Patti Lupone), with whom he has not lived for almost 20 years, has decided to have the marriage annulled or acknowledged in some legal way. Basically she wants Ivan to pay attention to her.  Their son Carlos (Justin Guarini) lives with mom and his girlfriend Marisa (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), and is trying to find his way as a man. A Taxi Driver (Danny Burnstein) continually and by chance picks up Pepa as a fare and gets involve din the action, serving as a kind of M.C. in the first act.  (This conceit falls away in the second act.)  It all plays out in a penthouse, in a cab on the Madrid streets, and in front of Pepa’s apartment where we encounter her concierge (Mary Beth Peil).

The theatrical elements that work here are often discrete moments of the show while the entire piece doesn’t quite hang together — tonally, conceptually, dramatically.  The design (sets by Michael Yeargan, lighting by Brian MacDevitt, projections by Sven Ortel) is arresting, and vividly evokes the pop art colors and sensibility of Aldomovar’s aesthetic in the original movie.  Burstein’s Taxi Driver is a comic timing master class.  Benanti’s Candela is luminous ditz every moment she is on stage, and almost stops the show early in the first act with the full stage, multi-moment, story-of-her-life “Model Behavior”.  The real, diva, musical comedy monologue-into-first-stanzas-into-bare-stage-spotlit solo real stop-the-show stuff is Lupone’s “Invisible” deep in the second act.  This is a cry for recognition, the song of a woman character of a certain age simply asking to be acknowledged.  Aside from these moments and these performances, one waits for the farcical plot points to click through to the end of the story.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 19, 2010)

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