Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
November 7, 2010
A Spanish movie from the '80s turned into an American musical of the new millennium? Sure, why not. After all the filmmaker is Pedro Almodovar whose movies employ various cultural quotes and influences: from surrealist images and metaphors a la Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Picasso, to madcap American movies like How to Marry a Millionaire and Andy Warhol-ish pop art visual extravaganza.
Plus the story of Pepa and the other women betrayed by their lovers, combined with the eternal Don Juan myth of a man in love with Love is of course universal, and still relatable to in our (post)feminist New York. Especially in a musical delivery.
Then why does a show starring wonderful actor/singers like Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone, Sherie Rene Scott, and the deep-voiced Brian Stokes Mitchell feel so disappointing to many people I talked with, including myself? (Yes, I talked with myself too, trying to convince me of the contrary that I truly enjoyed the production at Belasco Theatre.)
Composer/lyricist David Yazbek is not be blamed, his songs are smart, engaging, and entertaining, with their flamenco touch, Gypsy beat, and ballad-ish melancholy, succeeding remarkably in mixing wit, fun, freshness, and duende. The book by Jeffrey Lane is effective, preserving Almodovar's story and taking it to a more theatrical resolution by developing the subplot involving terrorism.
Then what is not working? Well, some of the things that in Almodovar's movie are stylish, quirky, and imaginative seem cheap and even kitschy in the musical. I guess it's mainly because the set and the transitions from one scene to the next are relying heavily on the video projected on the back wall. The images we see—a sort of virtual Madrid with artificially colored apartment buildings and streets—are far from conveying the cool pop-surreal atmosphere in Almodovar's film. Director Bartlett Sher is very creative in having the actors moving hectically on the stage in the hope that some of the Spanish vibrancy gets translated, but unfortunately it comes across as just unfocused energy, particularly in the first act. It didn't bring us on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but it was frustrating at times.
Despite its flaws, I still must recommend warmly this musical. Songs like "Model Behavior" (performed by a deliciously playful Laura Benanti), "Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today" (Brian Stokes Mitchell), "Tangled," and "Invisible" (Patti LuPone) are gems that will stay with you after you leave the theatre. And if the production doesn't bring all the expected beauty, joy, and intensity, it's still worth spending time with these women and men in search of love.