Sunday, November 21, 2010

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

The three most exciting things about great musicals should be the score, the book, and the performances. Well in the case of Lincoln Center Theater's production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown based on Pedro Almodovar's film of the same name, the three big highlights are Patti LuPone with a gun, Patti LuPone on a motorcycle, and Sherie Rene Scott singing next to a burning bed. To say that this show relies too heavily on its special effects is a gross understatement. I'm afraid that director Barlett Sher, who did a stellar job with the recent revival of South Pacific, missed the mark with this show. The use of projections to further the story is an attempt to make up for holes in the book and the score, but then that is simply a cop out for sub-par material. Sher underestimates the intelligence of the audience and presumes that we need to actually see a moving street scene on the scrim to believe the taxi is moving. The very idea behind theatre is that the audience will suspend disbelief and use their imagination to fill in the blanks.

Composer David Yazbek who delivered hits with The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels fails to write one hummable tune, aside from the act I closer "On the Verge." The lyrics are just as forgettable and a week after seeing the show, I can't remember a single line except "Welcome to the edge, to the verge," which the title practically gives us anyway. Having not seen the film, it is difficult for me to judge Jeffrey Lane's book because it is challenging to tell what is from the source material and what was written by Lane himself. There are certainly holes in the plot and loose ends are never tied up. For example, in the song "Mother's Day" Pepa's (Sherie Rene Scott) mother is introduced but is never addressed again in the play, leaving the audience hanging without a resolution. Also, we are led to believe that the uptight Carlos (Justin Guarini) has left his fiance for Candela (Laura Benanti), yet she has been flighty and noncommittal in the past and all he really wants is monogamy and security, so why choose her?

In terms of performance, Benanti in the role of Candela steals the show, turning a small part into a star turn. Her true commitment to the character is evident not only in her speech patterns but also in her body language and her walk, or well, her prance. We truly believe that she is a scatterbrained but lovable model who honestly would fall for a terrorist. Patti LuPone as Lucia gives a dominating performance as usual and her starpower speaks for itself. She is the only actor to get entrance applause and though the material given to her is shallow, she tries her damnedest to give life to this stock character and I did sympathize with her greatly. Sherie Rene Scott in the role of Pepa is tough for me to critique because I saw her at her finest in Everyday Rapture and nothing could ever live up to that. We get the sense in this show that Scott is unhappy as an actor because she does not seem to commit to this role as she has to others. Her Spanish accent is not as strong as that of other actors and in many of her songs, she drops it entirely. It doesn't help that she is given the weakest material of any character and while Pepa is supposed to be the central character, the one that we all root for, we feel no sympathy for her. But then again, I hate to fault Miss Scott for the problems with the book and the lyrics. Her singing is perfectly enjoyable in the show, but with the ballads she is given by Yazbek, she has no opportunity to show off her fabulous belt, which is what makes her truly special. Brian Stokes Mitchell as Ivan is in perfect voice and is lovely as always, though his character does nothing to further the plot and could be eliminated entirely. Guarini in his Broadway debut is surprisingly strong as Carlos and his confusion between his commitment to his fiance Marisa (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) and his infatuation with Candela is palpable.

I'm not the first person to say this and I won't be the last, but this show would have benefited greatly from an out of town tryout. Performing the show in another city, away from New York critics, would have given Sher and the creative team a chance to hear audience reactions and correct some of the show's problems. The actors also would have had more time to experiment with making their characters less generic. This show is a limited engagement and will end in January, and I just get the feeling that the creative team realized the show would never live up to the hype it inevitably received due to its all-star cast and creators. However, because they didn't have to worry about the show's ability to sustain a long Broadway run, they settled for mediocrity. The box office sales may prove me wrong, but I feel pretty confident in saying that this is one limited engagement that will not extend.

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