On Stage: “Women On the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown”

What was intended to be my first theater outing of 2011 wound up becoming my last of 2010.  Lincoln Center’s Women On the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown announced that it would be closing before its previously announced end date in late January.  Despite chopping weeks off their run, I was able show up at the theater one night between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and buy a ticket on the spot.

I knew nothing of the Pedro Almodovar film upon which the musical was based.  I was attending solely on the show’s theatrical pedigree.  Directed by Bartlett Sher, who helmed Lincoln Center’s outstanding South Pacific, with a script and score by Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek, the duo behind the vastly underrated musical adaptation of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and featuring a cast of Broadway stars so plentiful and luminous that they could keep the entire theater district in perpetual daylight, this was one of my most anticipated trips to the theater to date.

You can only imagine, then, the depths of my disappointment.

I’m still not even sure how to explain what went wrong here.  It just seemed that from the moment the curtain went up, this show had no idea what to make of itself.  The people involved were still, even in these final performances, valiantly trying to figure it out.  As such, there were jarring clashes in tone and approach, which did nothing but highlight the hollowness of the story.

As for what that story was, Women On the Verge… centers on Pepa, a Spanish actress of minor fame who is abandoned by her lover and occasional co-star, Ivan.  Over the course of the next 48 hours, Pepa’s attempts to reunite with Ivan before he departs Madrid lead her to encounters with his estranged wife, his buttoned-up son, the son’s joyless fiancee, a double-crossing lawyer, and a particularly ditzy and desperate friend, who may be unintentionally harboring a terrorist.  There’s seduction, gunplay, and even drug-laden soup.  It had all the makings of a farce of the highest, gut-busting order.  But sadly–oh, so sadly–the show barely had any life.

The absurdly talented cast of "Women On the Verge...". What happened?

I mostly blame Mr. Lane and Mr. Yazbek.  Lane’s script gave so little to anchor on to with his protagonists.  There’s a message of female empowerment to be gleamed from the action in Women On the Verge…, but Lane never gave it legs.  Mr. Yazbek’s music and lyrics were no better.  The tunes were a bad attempt at generalized Latin styles, with lyrics that were distractingly crass.  It worked for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a comedy that by its very title let you know what kind of humor to expect.  But Women On the Verge is a different animal, leading me to believe Mr. Yazbek might only have one style to call his own.

Mr. Sher is also at fault here, as he and his design team apparently did not know how to fill the surprisingly expansive space of the Belasco Theater.  The scant set pieces were swallowed up by the far-reaching and underutilized upstage area, and the graphics and videos that served as backdrops along the rear-most scrim were distracting and, with two exceptions, stylistically and narratively unnecessary.

Doing their best with what they’d been given was a cast that deserved so much better.  If you’re a Broadway fan, these names will mean something to you: Sherie Rene Scott, Laura Benanti, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Danny Burstein, and Patti LuPone.  I mean, honestly…  Throw in Bernadette Peters, Sutton Foster, and Nathan Lane, and that’s like the Ocean’s 11 of Broadway.  I am a fan of all of these performers, and it was crushing not to have them delivering material that was blowing me away.  Benanti fared best, stealing the show with an increasingly wild patter song called “Model Behavior”; but that’s because she took the shallowness of her character and ran with it, right into the realm of stereotype.  Sherie Rene Scott, as Pepa, and Patti LuPone, as Ivan’s slighted wife, should have be giving heart to the piece, but they just couldn’t.  Gamely filling out the supporting cast were Nikka Graff Lanzarone, de’Adre Aziza, Mary Beth Peil, and original American Idol loser Justin Guarini, who deserves recognition for holding his own alongside these seasoned vets.

It’s really too bad that Women On the Verge… turned out this way.  There was abundant potential for this to be a major hit, and somehow the fire just never lit.

~ T

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