03 January 2011

Audience on the Verge of a Mediocrity

Given the height of the heels these women are wearing,
it’s a wonder that Spider-Man is the show with the casualties.
Madrileñas Unidas: de’Adre Aziza (Paulina), Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Marisa), Patti LuPone (Lucia), Sherie Rene Scott (Pepa), Laura Benanti (Candela), Mary Beth Piel (Legend)

So much talent stands behind the musical adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown that it’s mystifying — and almost angering — to see how slight the finished product is. (I attended the final performance last night at the Belasco Theatre.) It’s tempting to believe, for example, that the creative team didn’t anticipate such a strong cast: how else to explain that you’ve got the great Patti LuPone in a role ideally suited to her, and yet there’s no real Patti LuPone number?

She played Lucia, the most obvious casualty of the transition out of Franco’s regime, a pious, repressed housewife who’s spent 19 years in a mental hospital. Once released, she finds Spain free of Franco. All the rules have changed, and the man she loves has long since moved on to other women. She can’t cope. In short, this is exactly the sort of predicament that audiences yearn to see LuPone’s characters thrown into; her searing vocalism and dramatic range afford her access to the farthest boundaries of emotional possibility. At her best, LuPone doesn’t go over the top, but she butts right up against it: as a performer, she is herself perpetually on the verge.

Really, I wanted to pull out a gun and start shooting.

Knowing these things about her (and really, what Broadway audience doesn’t? we live to see her in extremis) you sit in the theater and tick off a whole list of missed opportunities. And LuPone isn’t the only performer so poorly served. Far from it. In the process, the audience is poorly served, too.

Maybe the creators — Brown alum David Yazbek (music and lyrics) and Jeffrey Lane (book), with an assist from stage director Bartlett Sher and input from Almodóvar himself — were planning ahead, to the third or fourth cast, when only a couple of roles might be filled by powerhouse stars. If you’re expecting a modest chorus boy to take the role of Carlos, then you probably don’t assign the character a let-’er-rip solo. But the part can and should demand our attention: in the original film, Carlos made an international star of Antonio Banderas, and for the stage musical, the producers enlisted American Idol’s Justin Guarini. We didn’t get to hear much of his voice — just enough to tell that, yeah, he could’ve aced a good solo.*

Can you spot the idol?
That’s right — it’s Laura Benanti!
(With Guarini and Scott)

Somewhat similarly, it’s entirely conceivable that nobody expected to cast actresses of the caliber of Alma Cuervo and Mary Beth Piel (both of whom have cult followings among the most serious theater-goers I know); they’re stuck in the ensemble, and Piel barely gets to sing at all, in a lovely solo that ends before it gets started.

Piel’s number was just one of several glimpses of how good this show could have been. And really, shouldn’t one write to the best of one’s ability, in confidence that the first cast — and every subsequent cast — will rise to the material?

As Pepa, the beleaguered heroine at the center of the storm, knockout Sherie Rene Scott at least gets to sing quite a lot, and she creates a thoroughly sympathetic character — yet even she never quite gets to cut loose, in a way that would make her dramatic arc, from desperation to serenity, more satisfying. While many critics complained that the musical stuck too close to the film, I disagree: what was missing here was the spirit of the original, an antic farce, the title of which was emphatically not “Women on the Verge of Admirable Restraint.”

Scott as Pepa, with Burstein as the Taxi Driver

De’Adre Aziza, as Paulina the attorney, and Nikka Graff Lanzarone, an excellent dancer as Marisa the virgin, both suggested that they could be even more impressive if given the chance. Danny Burstein played an ebullient Luther Billis in Sher’s South Pacific at Lincoln Center, and many of the same qualities might have uplifted his Taxi Driver here: instead, he remained earthbound. (The character’s flamboyance, a vital element in this tale of post-Franco liberation, went unplayed.)

Only Brian Stokes Mitchell, as the unctuous Ivan, and Laura Benanti, as bubbleheaded Candela, got material that matched their characters and focused on their formidable talents. “The Microphone” takes a quick, surreal scene from the movie and turns it into Ivan’s philosophy of life. (It doesn’t matter what a man says to a woman, Ivan explains, and he proves it with the mellifluous refrain “Blah blah blah.”) “Model Behavior,” a series of frantic answering-machine messages, is a tour-de-force, brilliantly showcasing Benanti’s musical and comedic gifts, and yet it infuriated me. Why wasn’t the entire show this good?

Benanti’s too-good “Behavior”

Women on the Verge would have benefited from some radical pruning of the dialogue scenes, which were beset by slack pacing and poor set-up for laugh lines that I’d have thought were sure-fire. Another kind of failed set-up undermined LuPone’s 11 o’clock number, “Invisible,” which should have taken us by surprise: Lucia is in a courtroom, making absurd demands, yet everybody treats her in earnest. How much more effective if the judges and her own attorney had treated her as a crank, leaving us to discover the seriousness of her emotions in the number.

Also — this is Patti LuPone, for mercy’s sake. She is never going to be invisible, least of all on the stage of a Broadway musical. Use that!

(And why do you need to be told this?)**

It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your solo is?
P.S. Get off of her runway.

Most of our authentic LuPone moments were physical, actually, a holiday gift-box of gestures and stances, a wonderfully funny, characterful walk (and dancing), and takes and double-takes that were comical even when you couldn’t see her eyes. If I don’t feel entirely cheated of her singular genius after last night’s performance, this is why. Indeed, body movement was arguably the most successful element of the production, which also offered us Benanti’s hilariously appropriate walk and Christopher Gattelli’s red-hot choreography.

Yazbek incorporated plenty of Spanish rhythms, yet the core melodies were unmemorable and — above all — too bland. Yes, vanilla is an important ingredient in Spanish cuisine, but isn’t Women on the Verge about garlic and onions and peppery spices? I’d like to have heard the gazpacho that’s central to the plot.

Where’s the gazpacho?

I hadn’t attended the final performance of a Broadway musical since the closing night of Rags, in 1986. Perhaps needless to say, the finale of Women on the Verge was different. Yes, the show was closing earlier than scheduled, but with sufficient notice that the house was full of friends of the cast, and the mood was celebratory. Cheers greeted Benanti’s every turn, and rightly so.

But the closing of a show is never a blessing. As the curtain went down, I saw only Laura Benanti’s tear-streaked face as she embraced Patti LuPone: Gypsy and Mama Rose were reunited — and parting once again. That’s show biz.

*NOTE: Even if my guess is right, and the creators tailored the role of Carlos to a chorus boy’s measure, they were wrong. I’ve known plenty of chorus boys: all of them are capable of much more than the role affords.

**Readers outside New York may not fully appreciate the esteem in which LuPone is held here — but LuPone surely does. Several years ago, I was on an airplane landing in Los Angeles, when I noticed that the woman seated in front of me was having trouble retrieving her belongings from the overhead compartment.
“Let me help,” I said, reaching up.
“Thank you,” she said, and as I turned to hand over the bag, I recognized the dainty creature before me.
“Oh, my God,” I said; “I’m going to eat out on this story for months.”
“Yes,” Patti LuPone replied, “you are.”


www.roberthkeller.com said...

Maybe they'll revamp it for the touring production (if there ever is one)...

William V. Madison said...

I'd love to see them do just that! Honestly, I don't think it would take much -- just a clearer focus.