Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a musical stage adaptation of the Pedro Almodovar film, looks exactly the way it should: like a musical stage adaptation of the Pedro Almodovar film. Almodovar’s films are highly stylized; he shoots at very specific angles and the lively colors look like pop art on film. The designers of the stage version have captured that look, which should thrill any Almodovar fan.
I overheard the woman sitting next to me comment, during intermission, that she thought the show was a little over the top. Now, dear readers, you know I don’t usually go for schmaltz or gimmicks and prefer stripped down, expressive art. But here - while I wouldn’t call it schmaltzy the production effort, the wow factor, is tremendously palpable - it works; it’s what’s needed. These women are on the verge! They’re wound up; eccentric; maybe a little nutty (some of them are certifiable); they’re full of color and life so the design is, too. Any hints of staidness would be completely out of place. I really liked that the frenetic energy of the fluidly moving sets and projections (Michael Yeargan and Sven Ortel, respectively) matched the frenetic energy of the women (and men) on the verge. And as if the characters didn’t pop on their own, Catherine Zuber’s richly saturated and colorful costumes pack an extra punch, while remaining faithful to the designs from the film.
Here, I’d like to take a moment to recognize the projections. They are used in Women on the Verge to give a full sense of Madrid 1987, just the way the actual scenery and landscapes were used in Almodovar’s film. It helps that they’re projections and not scrims (painted backdrops) because it allows the show to carry on at an uninterrupted pace. These highly effectively projections (and The Sky Box’s aerial design - yup, there’s flying involved); the beautiful and often times emotional projections in American Idiot; and what I hear are terrific projections and film sequences in this season’s Brief Encounters all make a very good case for a special Tony category.
So if I’m writing about the design first you might be wondering if that means the meat and potatoes of the show aren’t quite what they should be. Well, I’m happy to report that that is not the case. The book, by Jeffrey Lane, is very funny, complete with zany antics and Jackie Mason-esque one-liners. (To wit: “Your mother’s really something.” “Yes, and the next minute she’s something else.” Zing!) The score, by David Yazbek, is lively and fun while it lasts, if not wholly memorable or hummable. (Though, I did love hearing some Spanish guitar - so sexy.) Christopher Gattelli’s choreography was rumba-tastic and Bartlett Sher’s direction was right on point.
And the performances! Nikki Graff Lanzarone is the one actress who looks most like her film counterpart. She as Marisa and de’Adre Aziza as Paulina are both serviceable here. Mary Beth Peil (a stage vet who can currently be seen on The Good Wife as Peter Florick’s mother) is nice as Pepa’s Concierge, the slightly flighty but devout landlord. Justin Guarini, a stage newcomer some may remember from the first season of American Idol, is good here as Carlos. He hits his marks and punchlines. His voice is fine, but its thinness is all too apparent when he’s singing with his stage father, Ivan, the bellowing Brian Stokes Mitchell. That man could sing from the bottom of the Grand Canyon - sans microphone - and be heard in Florida. He’s very good here as rico suave, a too-smooth Lothario who pushes many of the women to the verge. And Danny Burstein is charming, funny and lovably kooky as the Taxi Driver, more or less our guide and voice of reason throughout.
But those three women: Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti and Sherie Rene Scott. Wow! Okay, let’s just get it out of the way: Patti LuPone is a fabulous diva. She seems to relish this juicy character role (Lucia, Ivan’s jilted wife), with outrageous costumes and wigs and tons of comedic bits that cement her as one of the all-time stage greats. She walks on stage and owns it. What a presence. Not to be outdone, Laura Benanti (who co-starred with LuPone in the most recent revival of Gypsy, for which both women won Tonys) is fantastic here. (She might have given my favorite performance.) She has a wonderful voice, that’s obvious; but she’s also incredibly funny - hilarious, even, as Candela, the totally spacey model who urgently seeks the help of her best friend, Pepa. Pepa, of course, is our leading lady, an actress played to perfection by my favorite beltress, the terrific Sherie Rene Scott. Scott exudes confidence and sexiness, but also has moments of vulnerability, showing the cracks in her appealing surface. She’s the protagonist and emotional core of the show, and her show closing number, “Talk to Me” is chilling.
Also served chilled is gazpacho. Gazpacho figures prominently in the show, which is basically about women trying to come down from the ledge after these men have pushed them to the edge. I won’t give too much away, for those unfamiliar with the Almodovar film, particularly with this whole gazpacho zaniness. But, I will say that perhaps my favorite part of the show was when I entered the theatre to see that instead of a curtain, there was a scrim with a gazpacho-stained gazpacho recipe emblazoned on it. Absolutely brilliant. And tasty!