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Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (11/04/2010 - 01/02/2011)


LA Times: "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at the Belasco Theatre"

Musicals sprung from movies are usually a recipe for freeze-dried nostalgia served over songs. But when I heard that “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” Pedro Almodóvar's sparkling international breakthrough film from 1988 about romantic resiliency, was getting a Broadway makeover, my heart fluttered with hope that this might be one of those rare instances when the screen catapults the stage to giddy new heights.

Silly boy.

This new musical adaptation of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” which opened Thursday in a Lincoln Center Theater production at the Belasco Theatre, has many things in its favor. Chief among them is a glittering constellation of theatrical divas, featuring the one and only Patti LuPone as a kind of deranged den mother. But the show is hampered by a faltering score by David Yazbek (“The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) and a crucial bit of miscasting. Pepa, the protagonist thrown into a tailspin after her man cuts her loose, is played here by Sherie Rene Scott, a charming musical theater star but one with about as much Mediterranean earthiness as Barbara Bush or Paris Hilton.

What could have been a tangy European “Hairspray” — an offbeat film commercialized into a Broadway attraction while retaining just enough of the original sensibility to make it seem hip and daring — turns out to be a missed opportunity. Yet it’s a missed opportunity that I’m nonetheless glad I didn’t miss. I was aware all along of watching something that wasn’t working, but there were so many lively distractions, at least until the draggy second act, that I found sufficient delight to keep me from muttering expletives of disappointment.

The opening number, “Madrid,” sets the scene and the musical’s tentative tone. Danny Burstein plays the friendly dyed-blond taxi driver who magically appears whenever Pepa desperately needs a lift, and he’s the one charged with introducing us to the world of this Spanish capital, circa 1987.

But Burstein's performance is so wan at the outset that had I not seen his fearlessly comic Luther Billis in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of “South Pacific,” I might have blamed the singer rather than the song. But with lyrics like these — “Madrid is my mama/Give me the nipple, Every day I’m gonna taste it./The tears and the drama/Ten tons of mama-milk and not a drop is wasted” — even a talent as overpowering as Zero Mostel’s might have shriveled up onstage.

Bartlett Sher’s colorful kaleidoscopic direction breathlessly tries to compensate for the deficiencies of the musical. And the visual wit of his staging is perhaps the closest thing on hand to Almodóvar’s singular whimsy. But all the frenetic activity — with Sven Ortel’s projections lending Michael Yeargan’s fast-moving sets the hyperactive feeling of a fashion video — can’t conceal the gaping flaws of the show any more than decorative icing can improve a cake made without enough baking soda or eggs.

The screenplay’s steady farcical drive would seem to be ideally suited to the theater. (The movie has a stagey quality all its own, with Pepa’s modest penthouse serving as the locus for much of the action.) Book writer Jeffrey Lane gets a lot of mileage out of the dizzying situation of passionate women converging in brokenhearted turmoil, but the economy of the film is lost, and a tale that can happily sustain interest for 90 minutes is swollen into a 2½-hour slog.

Carmen Maura’s Pepa is the soul of the movie, a middle-aged woman with sexual spark, who’s aging gracefully in the way that only seems to happen in foreign films. Laid low by a deserting lover, the character prepares a Valium-stuffed batch of gazpacho, but her life force is too great to allow any real harm to come from her brew. Maura’s ability to be both grounded and flighty, to coexist in the realms of realism and farce, embodies the essence of Almodóvar’s vision.

Unfortunately, this can't be said of Scott, who seems lost and deflated by the production’s feverish swirl. This isn’t the same confident performer who was like a glorious moonbeam in “Everyday Rapture,” her semi-autobiographical musical about a girl from the religious heartland who gets the sacrilegious showbiz itch. The overriding impression here is of an actress who has been repeatedly told what not to do and who has subsequently become too timid to try anything.

Even Scott’s versatile singing languishes. But chalk that problem up to Yazbek, whose busy, complicated music drowns out its female voice. It takes the booming baritone of Brian Stokes Mitchell, who plays Pepa’s philandering narcissist, Ivan, to break through the hubbub.

Not that LuPone, marching around in an outré getup that’s like Harry Potter couture, doesn’t have her moments in her two big numbers. But she’s so pungent in her comic delivery as Lucia, Ivan’s crazy ex-wife out for revenge, and so miraculously melodious in her vocal interpretation that it’s hard not to wish that “Time Stood Still” and “Invisible” were better songs.

Laura Benanti, LuPone’s costar in the last Broadway revival of “Gypsy,” almost steals the show as Candela, the model who has fallen into bed with a terrorist and has interrupted Pepa’s crisis with one of her own. Watching her try to explain her troubles as she simultaneously creates new ones by flirting with Carlos (a captivating Justin Guarini), Lucia’s sweet-natured son, is one of the most uplifting bits of clowning I’ve seen since Katie Finneran hijacked “Promises, Promises” in her inebriated barroom scene.

Generally speaking, the rest of the supporting cast is better than the material. de’Adre Aziza isn’t required to do much more than appear tough as Paulina, Lucia’s feminist lawyer who becomes subjected to Ivan’s amorous ambush. At least Mary Beth Peil is given a meaty musical moment to redeem her one-joke routine as Pepa’s pious concierge. But all the women deserve better.

The tempo slackens in the second half, just when it should be accelerating to maximum velocity. And not even Sher, who has been on a Lincoln Center Theater hot streak in recent years with “South Pacific,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Awake and Sing!” and “The Light in the Piazza,” can rescue this derailed musical with his reliable legerdemain.

The joy of Almodóvar’s film is the profound simplicity of its whirligig emotional truth. Sadly, that quality has been lost in the Broadway shuffle.

LA Times

New York Daily News: "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"

In the Spanish movie "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," trouble springs from a cad's infidelity.

The highly anticipated musical version, which opened last night, suffers from the exact opposite problem: It stays too faithful, in this case to its source material.

The jittery adaptation by Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Yazbek (score) hews so close to Pedro Almodovar's 1988 film comedy — from plot and costumes to gags and props — that it's more like a rerun than a reinvention.

Worse still, the show's a repeat with an overindulgent set and an underused leading lady. That's a shame, since Sherie Rene Scott is one of Broadway's bright talents.

"Women's" imperfections wouldn't be so distracting if songs by Yazbek ("The Full Monty," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels") offered more to latch on to. Except for

a couple of gems, his 15 songs are agreeable, not memorable. Only the scene-change music stands out; it has a snappy Latin rhythm more authentic than the cast's half-hearted Spanish accents.

How director Bartlett Sher engineered this Lincoln Center musical is a mystery. The sensibilities that served him well on glorious productions of "The Light in the Piazza," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and "South Pacific" have abandoned him.

Desertion figures prominently in the musical's story, too. Pepa (Scott) is left by her lover, Ivan (the sonorous Brian Stokes Mitchell), a serial heartbreaker, who quit his wife, Lucia (Patti LuPone), years earlier. The trio are on a collision course, as others get pulled into their tumult.

De'Adre Aziza, a terrific Justin Guarini, of "American Idol" fame, and Nikka Graff Lanzarone play Lucia's lawyer, sonand almost daughter-in-law.

Scott's character should drive the action, but comes off as limp and peripheral. It's not her fault; a Madrid cabbie (Danny Burstein) gets better songs.

LuPone, in her outlandish wigs and hats, is a walking punch line. She has a great number, "Invisible," in which Lucia recalls a former life that's slipped away.

The show-stealing performance comes from a laugh-out-loud Laura Benanti, as Candela, a model who's accidentally hooked up with Madrid's most wanted terrorist. She turns "Model Behavor," a song made up of ever more desperate phone calls to Pepa, into a delirious jolt of joy.

At that moment, the show's antic energy makes sense, but otherwise the production just seems frantic, like a kid on the subway who won't sit down.

Gimmicks whiz by one after another: a motorized taxi, a flash fire, moving walkways and, like a title sequence from a vintage romantic comedy, illustrations scrolling on a huge scrim.

But despite the constant motion, "Women on the Verge" doesn't go anywhere.

New York Daily News

New York Magazine: "Women on the Verge Not on the Verge of Much"

The most startling thing about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown — the ambitious, addled, oddly enervated new musical from composer-lyricist David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and director Bartlett Sher (South Pacific) — is how tantalizingly close it comes to being a perfectly solid show. Certainly, it benefits from source-material that’s practically a musical already: filmmaker/collagist Pedro Almodóvar’s gaudy romp through liberated Madrid and the delicious, stinging thrills of modern heartbreak (“modern” being 1987, where Sher and librettist Jeffrey Lane have wisely chosen to fix the story’s time period).

Borrowing swatches from Almodóvar, the design scheme takes primary colors to the razor’s edge of migraine, yet leaves a warm afterimage. Yazbek’s endlessly reticulating rhymes and mamboid musical textures occasionally coalesce into not-awful songs — songs that are often vaguely reminiscent of other, better songs, but never unpleasantly so. Finally, Women brings together some of the most engaging theatrical talents of our time: Sherie Rene Scott as the jilted actress Pepa, Laura Benanti as her ditzy model pal, Candela, and Patti Lupone as archetypal first wife Lucia, the lovelorn, leopard-print Fury who backs up her nostalgia with hot lead.

So why, then, do we feel this superbly pedigreed show flapping so hard just to keep itself a few inches aloft? “Tell me, when did the wires get crossed,” croons Iván (Brian Stokes Mitchell, preening on cue), the male siren at the root of all this female trouble. “Tell me where the connection was lost. / Tell me how I got tumbled and tossed / and tangled up.” Gracias, Stokes, you may have hit on it: Despite double helpings of hysteria and a plot that purees melodrama, telenovela, and Hitchcock, there really are no tangles in Women, no serious challenges to its medium-tempo savoir faire. It’s an exercise in keeping itself together, as if its whole right-hand-red-left-hand-blue balancing act would collapse at the smallest eruption of unscheduled id.

First off, there seems to be some internal disagreement on the relative earthiness of this show. We open with “Madrid,” an ode to the sun-kissed backsplash of our tale. Our cab-driving narrator (David Burstein) gets right to the yoni of the matter, equating the city with Almodóvar’s patron goddess.

“Madrid, my mama, my creator / She might make me crazy but I’m not gonna fight her / I love her madly even when I hate her.” And then, the coup de grace: “Push me out, I’ll just crawl back up inside her.” Okay now! Yazbek’s been rightly praised for his high-wire rhyme runs, but that line feels like it took a gallon of Pitocin to pop out. Such sweaty anatomical ardor feels a little unearned so early in the evening, and the affable, normally game Burstein looks visibly uncomfortable singing it. But Yazbeck’s not finished: “'Cause maybe life is hard and maybe love is fickle / It’s all a steady trickle from her umbilical.” Golly. There are internal rhymes, and then there are internal rhymes. We’ve only just finished the opening number, and already, we’re silently praying for somebody to cut the cord.

But just as we hunker down for a pungent night, Sher seems to scent chaos on the wind: Soon, a kind of crackdown is in effect. This show has a lot of moving parts, human and mechanical (a taxicab is practically its own character), and, perhaps to compensate, Sher’s directorial grip feels a tad more pre- Franco than post. Every transition, scene change, and stage picture is a perfect Mondrian, so ruthlessly rectilinear, it’s almost Tron-drian. Michael Yeargan’s sets are gorgeous, and licked to a candy sheen by Brian MacDevitt’s Hayden Planetarium of a lighting design, but the Tetris-like maneuvering it takes to lock them into position can be dizzying. Just keeping this machine clicking along seems to be absorbing most of Sher’s attention: He buries a lot of big moments, from entrances to song cues to jokes. There’s just no time for a breakdown, in the midst of all this clockwork — and a show about liberation and the lovely, bloody messes it makes becomes a study in repression.

The actors feel it, too, and curl into themselves accordingly. Scott’s Pepa is rapturously heartbroken and sells Yazbek’s swelling torch song “Lie to Me” with eyes and soul abrim. Scott’s voice contains real ache, actual breath — my seatmate said, “You can always hear the effort,” and meant it as a compliment. But overall, there’s more steely-eyed resolve to Pepa than Valium-enabled acting out. Even her sudden rages feel considered. Dumped by Iván and harried by his ex, she certainly deserves our sympathy; she just doesn’t seem to need it much. Speaking of that ex: Lupone ought to be the feathered centerpiece in the middle of this diva smorgasbord. But her simmering Lucia is so contained, so dangerously bottled and theatrically muted, she barely registers — neither the peril nor the comedy of her blood-vendetta against her former spouse and his many lovers manages to bleed through. Early American Idol pinup-tenor Justin Guarini feels a bit too safe to play the restless nebbish Carlos (the nerd-hunk role originated onscreen by Antonio Banderas), but he executes adequately and sings well. Mostly, everyone seems to be focusing on their rather unfortunate my-name-is-Inigo-Montoya accents, with particular emphasis on the delightful Andalusian lisp: As far as Sher and, apparently, Broadway audiences are concerned, the cast’s pronunciation of “gathpacho” is the joke that keeps on giving.

The show has a wild card, though, and it’s Laura Benanti as Candela, Pepa’s bubbleheaded, man-eating pal. While Pepa tries to unravel Iván’s web of deceit and contemplate life beyond him, Candela has a more immediate problem: Her latest fling is a terrorist who’s planning an attack that very day. Benanti, cantering around in short-shorts and eight-inch heels, converts a great clown role into nothing less than the life blood of the production. Her yammering showstopper — where she leaves a breathless flotilla of messages on Pepa’s answering machine — is Women’s high point, and one of the only points where the show gets out of its own way and allows its substantial inner energies to come to the fore.

Soon enough, the pieces shift again, and we’re on to the next stringent staging sequence, the next roaring run of rhymes, the next raster of sets and projections: Tab A into Slot B. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown isn’t entirely hopeless or joyless. It’s simply suffering from too much therapy. Every step it takes is as deliberate and serious as a recovering drunk’s. That leaves us in rather forced territory and far from the verge of anything. The secret to great gathpacho, Pepa tells us, is in how you mix it. Here, we can see the promise of madness, ecstasy, and plain old fun floating around in the blender. It's just all settled to the bottom.

New York Magazine

New York Post: "'Women' under ditsy, musical influence"

There's a giant pileup at the Belasco Theatre, where "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" opened last night. The show is flashy, breathless, busy. It's a mess, but it's a big, fun Technicolor mess.

Flinging itself forward with desperate energy, this new musical never coagulates into a coherent whole. Luckily, many of its parts are vastly entertaining.

That's the least we could have expected from the reunion of those two Tony winners from "Gypsy," Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti, and from David Yazbek, whose scores for "The Full Monty" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" are gems.

We put up with a lot when there's talent like this around.

The show faithfully adapts Pedro Almodovar's 1988 comedy, down to the garish '80s costumes and Madrid setting (leading to haphazard Spanish accents).

But the movie is built on a series of scenes unevenly strung together, and book writer Jeffrey Lane followed it closely. The result is like standing by an intersection: Traffic whizzes by, pausing only for the occasional red light/song.

At the center of this whirlwind is Pepa (a strangely ineffectual Sherie Rene Scott), who spends the whole show chasing Ivan (Brian Stokes Mitchell), the aging Lothario who just dumped her via answering machine. There's little point in trying to sum up the rest of the frantic action, which consists mostly of the kooky shenanigans of colorful characters that include Ivan's stalker ex, Lucia (LuPone, good but underused), and his geeky, stuttering son, Carlos ("American Idol" runner-up Justin Guarini).

The action hurtles along more or less smoothly, though the staging by Bartlett Sher ("South Pacific") is surprisingly clunky at times. A trick literally backfires when an acrid stink follows an onstage blaze -- not the best ad for a high-profile Lincoln Center Theater production.

Admittedly, the film hasn't aged well, and Lane should have followed its stylish, oddball spirit rather than its letter. As it is, the biggest change is Ivan's increased presence, which is a terrible decision. This thing is called "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" for good reason.

Luckily, the show also has serious assets. Chief among them is Benanti, who brings the slightly dim, skimpily dressed Candela to outrageous, hilarious life. Benanti milks the lamest lines to the max, whips up laughs out of thin air and slays with a song, "Model Behavior," that consists of a series of frantic phone messages delivered at lightning speed.

Though it lacks a proper closing number, Yazbek's score is full of wonderful, witty little nuggets, often assigned in a counterintuitive manner. You wouldn't expect LuPone to be a good fit for a '60s Brill Building pastiche like "Time Stood Still," but she sounds terrific. She also puts just enough belt into the deceptively slow-burning "Invisible" to give it a jolt.

"Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" is far from perfect. But there's enough going on to see this particular glass of gazpacho as half-full.

New York Post

New York Times: "Here's Your Valium, What's Your Hurry?"

They’re giving out the wrong drug at the Belasco Theater, where “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” opened on Thursday night. As in the 1988 Pedro Almodóvar movie that inspired this star-jammed musical, Valium is consumed in large quantities by many characters. That is so pharmaceutically irresponsible. What this production needs — immediately and intravenously — is Ritalin.

Yes, attention-deficit disorder, the plague of American schoolchildren, has now claimed one of Broadway’s own. Packed with talent and creativity, and a cast and crew bristling with Tony Awards, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” is nonetheless a sad casualty of its own wandering mind.

Directed by Bartlett Sher (who did so beautifully by “South Pacific”), with a book by Jeffrey Lane and songs by David Yazbek, this tale of mad love in swinging 1980s Madrid feels hopelessly distracted from beginning to end. It keeps changing directions the way a teenage girl changes clothes before a first date. No sooner does this Lincoln Center Theater production start to develop a character or land a joke or sell a song than it switches gears and races on to another person or plot point or number that is, in turn, left incomplete. It’s coitus interruptus, ad infinitum.

“Women” doesn’t even pause long enough to allow the audience to give a hand to the first solo sung by Patti LuPone, the biggest name on the marquee here. (And woe unto ye who deprive La LuPone of applause.) As a consequence, this overdesigned show — which also stars Sherie Rene Scott, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Laura Benanti — blurs into one pretty, jittery haze. Your instinct is to call out, as you would in an old-fashioned movie house when the projectionist has fallen asleep, “Focus!”

Now you could argue (if you were feeling generous) that “Women” is only reflecting the temperament of its restless, dissatisfied characters, who keep looking for love in all the wrong places. Or that all those quick cuts between scenes and songs are meant to recreate the farcical style of Mr. Almodóvar’s film, which remains a priceless portrait of romantic anarchy.

But “Women” the movie had momentum and suspense beneath its giddiness. Contrasting deliberately artificial visuals (in the style of 1950s Technicolor Hollywood melodramas) with dead earnest emotions, Mr. Almodóvar’s film exuded, hilariously but hauntingly, the heightened passions we associate with opera. Its characters’ distractedness was the distractedness of obsession. The distractedness of “Women” the musical mostly feels born of indecision and even boredom, as if it kept getting tired of whatever it was doing.

The plot here follows that of the film closely. Pepa (Ms. Scott, in the role immortalized on screen by Carmen Maura), is a movie voice dubber, who has just been left by her longtime lover (and fellow dubber), Ivan (Mr. Mitchell). This guy has a history of walking out on women, including his wife, Lucia (Ms. LuPone), newly released from a mental institution and bent on revenge.

Also lost careering down the bumpy road of love (and sharing slipping Spanish accents) are Carlos (Justin Guarini), Ivan and Lucia’s mother-smothered grown son; his girlfriend, Marisa (Nikka Graff Lanzarone); and Candela (Ms. Benanti), Pepa’s best friend, who has discovered to her dismay that she is having an affair with a terrorist (Luis Salgado). And, oh yes, de’Adre Aziza and Mary Beth Peil show up in a couple of other roles. I forget what. Acting as a sort of Castilian chorus is the chipper Taxi Driver (a disengaged-seeming Danny Burstein), who keeps singing about how lively and complicated Madrid is.

(Wait a minute. What is that ladybug doing on my ceiling? I’m just going to do a quick Google search on ladybugs.... Oops, are you still there? You see, the spirit of this production is truly infectious. If the performers can’t seem to keep their minds on the show, why should we?)

“Women” — which features sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber — is chockablock with visual novelties. (The Playbill lists credits not only for projections, by Sven Ortel, but also for “aerial design,” by the Sky Box, and special effects, by Gregory Meeh.) When Mr. Burstein’s Taxi Driver races around the city, his progress is chronicled by projections that bring to mind a racecar video game. Objects that figure into the plot (telephones, answering machines, microphones) are forever being shown in giant multiple images. An entire beauty shop set is slid onstage to set up a single, quickly forgotten joke.

Pepa is first glimpsed in bed, reflected on a sloped mirrored ceiling (which, as far as I can recall, is never used again). As in the film, her bed will later catch fire, when she drops a match on it. And you should pity the actress who has to sing as she stands beside a burning bed that is giving off a distinctly toxic smell. Ms. Scott, talented as she is, doesn’t stand a chance. And what’s with those high-flying rope swings that the leading actresses are forced to mount for the first act curtain?

The cast is repeatedly upstaged by such gimmicks. So are the songs, which despite being propelled by various catchy Latin rhythms, feel oddly listless. But it’s hard to judge them here, since they are usually cut off midtune. Ms. LuPone’s second-act number, an elegy to lost time called “Invisible” (which she is kindly allowed to complete), has a soulful wistfulness to which she gives her all, and I can imagine the song fitting easily into her cabaret act.

For the record, Mr. Guarini, the first runner-up of the first season of “American Idol,” is just fine as the stammering Carlos. But only Ms. Benanti — as the hyperkinetic Candela, a fashion model short on brains — holds our attention, in an overcharged comic performance that might seem vulgar in another context but here benefits from contrast to the lifelessness around her.

Ms. Scott, Ms. LuPone and Mr. Mitchell, marvelous though they have all been elsewhere, here seem to be preoccupied with other matters, like where they’ll be having dinner after the show. In that sense, I identified with them completely.

New York Times

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