Book by Jeffrey Lane
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Based on the film by Pedro Almodóvar
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Starring Sheree Renee Scott, Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti,
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Danny Burstein
Belasco Theatre
A Production of the Lincoln Center Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

There used to be a time when it was more feasible to debate what subjects were appropriate for musicalization. That kind of changed with Cabaret and changed unequivocally with Sweeney Todd, because those broke the barriers of decorum (which I distinguish from dat elusive debbil taste) After that, you could never again say that any subject was truly taboo.

                        So when I say that the only thing truly wrong with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is the decision to have musicalized it in the first place, understand I’m not talking about the quality of the subject matter, but rather the intrinsic trap of the source film by Pedro Aldomóvar. On the surface, everything seems fine enough: to oversimplify, it’s an edgy romantic farce about women who are left by their lovers and have to deal with their feelings. The characters are bigger than life and idiosyncratic, so it isn’t hard to imagine them singing, nor even to be attracted to the idea. Plus, the setting is Madrid. How much more musical theatre can it be?

                        You’d think.

                        But the problem is, these are women whose actions are taken only by way of responding to the bad news; they aren’t pro-actively seeking anything concrete—in acting terms, pursuing an objective. Subsequently they can only talk/sing/ruminate about their emotional states of being, which we pretty much already know. Additionally, there are, as the title indicates, several of them. Pepa (Sheree Renee Scott) is nominally the lead, because we spend more time with her, and it is her thread that sets the farce mechanics in motion, but she too, bereft of what she wants that can be clearly dramatized, becomes a passive participant. Cinema is full of characters who function similarly, and because the camera has a unique ability to capture internal life, many a successful film features them—Hal Ashby’s Being There (from Jerzy Kozinski’s novel), starring Peter Sellers as a retarded, middle aged gardener who loses his benefactor and is forced into the outside world being perhaps the most extreme example. But musicals are about narrative compression, external dramatization and active characters with clear “wants.” Without these things, a musical’s focus tends to sprawl—and what sprawl does is take the wind out of narrative energy and reduce dramatic tension, which also tends to flatten our perception of characterization since the reactive side becomes over-emphasized. And that’s exactly what has happened at the Belasco Theatre.

                        It’s not the subject matter of Women on the Verge that resists musicalization; it’s the structure. And subsequently, stars with the octane of the aforementioned Ms. Scott plus Patti Lupone and Brian Stokes Mitchell are themselves rendered curiously unexceptional (save that we’re somehow academically aware that they have extraordinary talent and skill in their tool kit). Only Laura Benanti and Danny Burstein manage to puncture the blanket of dramatic sameness, Ms. Benanti because her dim-bulb tootsie character affords her the room for an extreme characterization, aided and abetted by songs for her by composer-lyricist David Yazbek that require the kind of patter-virtuosity that always stands out when done with expert nuance; and Mr. Burstein as a cab-driver cum audience tour guide, who carries the opening number, which does little more than set the scene as Madrid, and thus gets to carve out a similar (but different) performance turn in an impressive song that is divorced from plot.

                        I hasten to add, his and Ms. Benanti’s are not the only impressive numbers. Yazbek is one of the hippest theatrical voices around, and in music, lyric diction and general form, he has whacked out a score that utilizes the indigenous ethnic, national and pop-music tropes to perfection. No one, and I mean no one in the biz could have done it better, more savvily or with more addictive, rhythmic richness. And one must acknowledge that his inspiration is drawn from a libretto by Jeffrey Lane, a very funny fellow (and Yazbek’s collaborator on their previous musical, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). Though even Mr. Lane’s laughs are somewhat muted for lack of sufficient tension to up the ante. (Bartlet Sher’s direction is perfectly nice, though its reliance on projections and background CGI may be too heavy.)

                        Having said all this, I can’t pretend to be the musical theatre guru who knows-all sees-all (much as I’d like to be). I think the creative team has to have understood the challenges. Consciously. At least somewhat. And perhaps the film, and the singability of the characters, was seductive enough to convince them the challenges could be met; and I’d posit further that the team seeing their work close-up, in round table readings and stripped-down development steps—with the kind of close-to-cinematic intimacy that a full proscenium staging in a Broadway house dilutes—was further misleading. Nor can I say I believe that any first rate talents following this particular muse would have been less susceptible to it.

                        When you’re in the grip of creative passion, all you can do is try things and see. There’s no other choice. All you can do is try…

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