THEATER REVIEW

Broadway's 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown' lacks an edge

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010

NEW YORK -- Maybe a whole evening of funny freak-outs is too much to ask of the new musical version of "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," the resistible confection that's been coaxed out of Pedro Almodóvar's screwball Spanish film comedy. But as it happens, there's only one great manic explosion in the sporadically tickling affair that opened Thursday night at Broadway's Belasco Theatre.

That giddy-making neurotic fuss is kicked up endearingly by Laura Benanti, as a dim fashion model who suddenly comes to the realization that the guy she's bedded, the one with the Uzi, just may be a terrorist. In the rapid-fire patter of the song "Model Behavior," Benanti scampers across the stage like a scandalized squirrel, dashing from phone to phone and contemplating the magnitude of her carnal folly.

It's the one interlude in which the musical, featuring such other solid Broadway citizens as Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Sherie Rene Scott, fully lives up to its namesake, the breakout 1988 film extolling womanhood in extremis that put Almodóvar's cinematic flair on display. Much of the rest of the time, the show -- directed by Broadway whiz Bartlett Sher ("South Pacific") -- resorts to flashy projections and blatantly stagy gimmicks to shore up the weaknesses in character development and musical numbers.

The creative team trots out a blazing bed that spouts real flames and a tricked-out Madrid taxi that does 360s. The production's flimsiest gambit comes during the Act 1 finale, when LuPone, Scott and Benanti are suspended on ropes above the stage: It has something to do, apparently, with emotional lives hanging by a thread. "Welcome to the verge, to the cusp, to the edge, to the end of the line," they sing, even though scant evidence is supplied of what, beside some run-of-the-mill man trouble, has these characters so strung out. As it turns out, they're not the only ones this musical leaves dangling.

The production's other skilled practitioners include book writer Jeffrey Lane and composer-lyricist David Yazbek, who previously collaborated on the musical adaptation of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." That was firmer footing for them. Neither demonstrates much of a feel for Almodóvar's Madrid, which is mostly conjured by endless repetition of the word "gazpacho." (And can someone tell me why Spanish characters would talk to one another in bad Spanish accents?) They also evince little synchronicity here with the film director's operatic women, who are supposed to come across as buoyant creations, even when they're in pain.

The plot mechanics, meanwhile, feel like underpopulated farce. (Although an Act 2 song is called "Tangled," there's not all that much here to untangle.) Scott's Pepa, an actress, has been dumped by Mitchell's Ivan, a skeevy rake whose ex-wife Lucia (LuPone) still wants him back. Their sexually naive son Carlos ("American Idol's" Justin Guarini, in an extremely likable Broadway debut) is tethered to the snooty Marisa (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), and it will merely take some of Pepa's spiked gazpacho to loosen their grasp on one another. Benanti's Candela is on hand to prompt the intervention of the police.

Scott and Mitchell are ill-used in blandly conceived roles, and Danny Burstein seems overmatched in the role of the embodiment of the city's spirit, a cabby who escorts Pepa on her quest for Ivan. Benanti and LuPone are much more successful, the latter as an Iberian drama queen nursing her grudges as if they were energy drinks. Her musical soliloquy, "Invisible," provides one of the show's few polished emotional statements.

Sven Ortel's projections and Michael Yeargan's sets offer up the evening's most dynamic elements, conjuring Almodóvar's vivacious cosmopolitanism. Your eye will never get weary in a visit to "Women on the Verge," but you're still likely to come out of the experience feeling shortchanged.

Women on the Verge

of a Nervous Breakdown

book by Jeffrey Lane, music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Scott Lehrer; orchestrations, Simon Hale. With De'Adre Aziza, Mary Beth Peil. About 2½ hours. At Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., New York. Visit http://www.telecharge.com.


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