Sunday, December 12, 2010

Broken Down - Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - Musical Review

Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - Belasco Theatre - Broadway - New York, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek, Book by Jeffrey Lane based on Pedro Almodóvar, Directed by Bartlett Sher, Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli
Runs until Jan. 23rd 2011

Well, it's not horrible in an offensive way, but for a musical based on a Pedro Almodóvar movie, it is terribly slow and at times, boring, with bland songs and an unconscious lead and a strangely colourful yet lackluster set design. So yes, all the buzz and rumours are true, but what makes it worse is that buried somewhere in this misguided production, is the possibility of a great musical, and while there are elements that shine through (most notably an element called Laura Benanti), it becomes a frustrating musical theatre experience.

And let's be honest. If the musical didn't have its cast of Broadway All-Stars, and it didn't have recent Tony winning director Bartlett Sher (who, based on this and South Pacific, the only things I've seen him direct, makes me feel he's a bit overrated), and if it wasn't based on a cult foreign film by Pedro Almodóvar (giving it automatic credibility over basing a musical on something like Legally Blonde), we wouldn't have given Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown this much attention and had such high expectations from the get go. Reviews and opinions probably would have given the show a bit more leeway in its faults. But mundane music and haphazard direction is still no excuse, and when you have a cast like Tony Winners or nominees Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Benanti, Mary Beth Peil, de'Adre Aziza and Sherie Rene Scott, it all feels like such a tragic waste.

While the casting is grande, the big mistake is Sherrie Rene Scott (The Last 5 Years) in the lead role of Pepa. Pepa is supposed to be the main woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but as played by Scott, is she's in some dreary coma-induced with annoyances that don't suit her needs. Scott, a talented actress, sadly is channelling the same performance from her last show Everyday Rapture, where she played herself. If there's anytime an actress is allowed to be overdramatic and over-the-top, it's a musical based on a Almodóvar, and instead, Scott totally underplays it, almost as if she's sleepwalking through the entire performance.

Luckily, Laura Benanti (Gypsy), as Pepa's model (and thus not-too-bright) best friend Candela, manages to get the essence of this loopy Spanish soapy melo-drama and milk it for its full comic effect. Benanti's Candela isn't just on the verge, she's always on mini breakdowns as she tries to figure out what to do, especially as she tries to run away from a boyfriend she thinks is a terrorist.

Patti LuPone (Gypsy) has a grande ol' time as Lucia, the ex-wife of Pepa's current beau, but while Patti gets to walk back and forth across the stage in fabulously colourful outfits, she's given little to do, considering we have Patti LuPone on stage in front of us. Her songs are sadly forgettable and while she manages to milk what comedic moments she has, she's not given enough scenes to chew on.

Of course, that's even more than what Brian Stokes Mitchell (Ragtime) as Ivan, the man in the middle of all the women, or even worse, has to endure. With his booming elegant voice, he's left to stand as the coatrack left to withstand all of the bickering women.

Of course, this is a musical about women, but then what is Mary Beth Peil (The Good Wife) and de'Adre Aziza doing? With very little given to do, Peil and Aziza seem even more wasted then LuPone and Mitchell. (Aziza understudies Scott in the role of Pepa and I would love to see what she does with the role, and in fact, I would believe that alone could save the show to make it bearable). Aziza plays Paulina, Lucia's lawyer, and essentially a glorified extra.

Mary Beth Peil simply plays Pepa's apartment building concierge, (she doesn't even have a character name) and is sort of Pepa's voice of reason, and even gets the closing song, but it shows the odd break down of the way the musical is built upon (by Jeffrey Lane).

There's also a the Taxi Driver character, played by Danny Burstein (South Pacific), who seems to be Pepa's accidental guardian angel, and the audiences' narrator, and who seems to have more songs than Patti LuPone's Lucia (or feels that way). In a plot with many major characters to deal with already, the Taxi Driver seems like a time-consuming unnecessary character and Burstein adds little to the proceedings.

Back when the cast was announced, everyone began to dump on Justin Guarini (American Idol) as an unworthy cast member among the elite cast, but I'm happy to say that Justin is not only NOT the worst part of the show, he's one of the better parts. Charmingly playing Carlos, Ivan and Lucia's son, Guarini manages to come off with a natural and likable stage presence (especially amongst heavyweights Mitchell and LuPone as his parents), and his chemistry with Benanti is adorable and heartwarming. Guarini and Benanti give the show the heart lacking from the rest of the proceedings. Guarini's voice also manages to hold his own, and his comic skills must have been honed as he fended off being known as the first American Idol loser (losing to Kelly Clarkson in the finals).

Nikka Graff Lanzarone, who probably got the role for the perfect drag-queen type of look that seems perfect in a Pedro Almodóvar project, manages to turn the cold Marissa, Carlos' fiance, into a perfect foil, and Lanzarone is fine in another thankless character.

In the end, the real problem is the book and music, neither of which captures the passion and emotional craziness in the source material, while the direction confuses actors and set pieces crossing the stage back and forth as forms of dramatic chaos. There's some nice projections and a beautiful attempt and making it look as visually cinematic as the film does, but sadly it flattens the live stage show and isn't quite successful. There's little passion in Sher's vision, where even the famed burning-of-the-bed scene comes off as a side note that I barely even noticed until the bed was mostly burnt out already. What should have been a campy, visual, soapy delight, is instead a tepid and unexciting new musical. (The 2 1/2 stars rating is mostly for Benanti and Guarini and seeing Patti LuPone in a gigantic hat and later on a motorcycle with her hair blown back from the wind).

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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