Today on Tex and the City: Jon Paul needs a valium to recover from the mess of Broadway’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
At times on Saturday night, I felt like the ladies of Broadway’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown were warming up for the New York Marathon. What with all the choreographed pacing back and forth and up and down the non-stop moving set. Unfortunately, no amount of movement could breathe authentic energy into this show. It’s like their coach, er director Bartlett Sher, was too worried about distracting gadgets like colorful projections and flying set pieces, and lost site of the fundamentals like character development and interaction. Granted, it’s never easy to adapt a beloved classic, but I was on the edge of my seat wondering what in the world Pedro Almodóvar thought of the mess this production had made of his lovably funny and tender film. Like the women on stage, I needed a valium to stay calm—and get by.
The problem starts from the opening scene setting number “Madrid” which is supposed to paint a picture of an exciting capital city in 1987 undergoing rapid changes after a decade of democracy. Much of the audience is probably unfamiliar with the history and pulse of Madrid—and this number certainly doesn’t rectify that. The city conjured up here feels dull and lifeless. It’s not like it’s impossible to create an electrifying opening number about an unfamiliar Latino ‘hood—think the first pulsating moments of In the Heights.
What happens next is a weird back-to-back montage of musical numbers with almost no character interaction. One of the things that made the movie so heart warming was the relationships—good and bad—amongst the women. We get none of that here. Which is tragic since the talent assembled here is near legendary Broadway proportions.
Sherie Rene Scott, who normally dazzles, seems like she’s in an entirely different production from the rest. As Pepa, the centerpiece, she plays the whole thing straight, and sad, yet not pathetic enough for us to think she’s funny or even interesting. Patti LuPone—I mean, hello, if there’s anyone that could nail the crazy diva of Lucia it would be this icon—but she’s not given anything to work with in either the book or the score. Both of her big numbers have no real ending so the audience couldn’t even applaud. What?!
The only bright spot—and she shone, thank god—is adorable Laura Benanti. She lit up the stage and overcame all the overplayed set pieces around her when she pranced about. I turned to Chef and uttered, “Thank god she’s here.” Her turn as Candela, the model who has fallen for a terrorist, is the only one that comes close to nailing the comic nature of the original film role, and yet made it all her own. Her big number “Model Behavior” brought down the house—I think we were all relieved that at least someone was worth watching. When she left the stage, I nearly had a breakdown.
For the most part, this is a musical that relies on a mixed bag of special effects tricks to keep us from noticing the lack of character development or story. Not to say that some of the tricks don’t work. Some of them are splendid. When Pepa and her recently ex-lover Ivan (played by an oddly smarmy not sexy Brian Stokes Mitchell) dub a love song into a re-enacted movie projected onscreen, it’s truly stunning and heartbreaking. And then my heart breaks that the trick never shows up again—it’s the only time that an effect merged with character and storytelling device. Nope, once a trick is finished—we move swiftly onto the next one. Like a real onstage burning bed (an iconic image from the movie) which made everyone around me nervous that it was a mistake. Not to mention that it completely upstaged poor Sheri Rene Scott having to sing some unforgettable song next to it. Unforgettable, except that’s the one song that kept being reprised. And it’s not nearly interesting enough for that.
I could go on and on about a million other quibbles. How the taxi—another centerpiece from the movie—comes off as campy and sad. How many throw away one-liners are included at the expense of real character development. How the accents seem to come and go at will and are all over the map—some seem Cuban while others seem Argentine. The only consistency is when anyone says “gazpacho” with a slight lisp. It’s the one thing delivered over and over again with just the right blend of humor and zest.
Believe me, I wanted so much to love and embrace this show. It had so much talent going for it, which made it even more nerve wracking to watch it go so wrong. Someone pass me a little blue pill.