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Theater Review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Friday, November 12, 2010

It’s possible to be on the verge of a lot of things and yet not heading anywhere at all. Such is the case at the Belasco Theater, where audiences watching director Bartlett Sher's musical version of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” take a vertiginous journey through the world initially created in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 film of the same name. But without the film's intense close-ups and pacing, the musical is on the verge of exploding into a forgettable supernova of primary colors and Tony award-winning talent.

The musical follows the plot of the film with determination, though in the play, the film’s suspense and dramatic tension is swapped out for snappy scenes that fail to engage the audience emotionally. The plot centers on a love affair taking place in Madrid. Pepa (played with awkward exaggeration by Sheri Rene Scott) gets involved with her fellow voice-dubber Ivan (the always swanky Bryan Stokes Mitchell). The two break up just in time for Ivan's ex-wife, Lucia (Patti LuPone), to get out of the mental institution she has been in for 20 years.

The play rests uncomfortably on the shoulders of these three exceptionally talented and decorated actors. The show's music by Jeffery Lane and David Yazbek is musically diverse with quick invocations of Arab influence, but as the curtains come down, there is not a hook to be hummed. Playing the role of the taxi driver, Danny Burtstein acts as the tour guide to the musical’s splashy universe, and endeavors to get the audience excited. “You people in the cheap seats, can you feel it?” he shouts during the opening song “Madrid.” What begins as a rousing cry of enthusiasm from the audience dissipates with each round of applause. Trying to feel "it" becomes more and more difficult.

The show's comedic relief falls to Pepa’s bouncy and vapid model friend, Candela (Laura Benanti), who has accidentally gotten involved with a terrorist. Her over-the-top performance is charming, though perhaps she finds herself the most charming of all, as she is willing to break character and giggle for an entire scene—a painful moment for any audience. Ivan’s shy, stumbling son is played with sweet affection by “American Idol” winner Joseph Guarini. He is well-matched opposite Nikka Graff Lanzarone, who plays his fiancée, Marisa.

In lieu of a cohesive ensemble cast, Almodóvar’s characters pass through the play like floats in a parade, not sticking around long enough to deal with the tough business of capturing the audience's affections. Given that the play is set in Spain, it would also help if the cast got its Spanish accents right—in particular the allusive Spanish “lisp”—which nearly every actor uses with great affect and an embarrassing lack of precision.

But the main problem with “Women on the Verge” is that it tries to deliver too much—too much talent, too much gimmick, too many flourishes of bravado gone slightly awry. The bed that Pepa sets on fire early in the first act leaves a putrid smell that hangs in the air for the remainder of the show. During the number when the women of "Women on the Verge" have their wild ensemble song, they spend the time fiddling with their harnesses before being hoisted up into mid-air on colorful bands for no apparent reason. Given all this technical wizardry, it’s easy to see why the show's opening was delayed twice.

Despite its foibles, the pizazz factor is not to be ignored. Michael Yeargan's sets, which resemble the film's, are whisked left, right and upward at breakneck speed and with smooth precision. The play dutifully captures Almodóvar's visually alluring color palette, aided by the bright projections that run almost constantly on stage. The stills—glamorized eyes, alarm clocks, manicured hands and ornate façades of Madrid—seem to have been taken directly from Almodóvar’s personal clip art library. Still, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" lacks the tension, momentum and focus that would push it to the verge of being spectacular. But that's not to say it isn't a spectacle.

The ensemble of
Paul Kolnik

The ensemble of "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

Patti LuPone and de'Andre Aziza confer on the couch.
Paul Kolnik

Patti LuPone as Lucia and de'Andre Aziza as her lawyer, Paulina, confer on the couch.

Sheri Rene Scott as Pepa and Bryan Stokes Mitchell as Ivan.
Paul Kolnik

Sheri Rene Scott as Pepa and Bryan Stokes Mitchell as Ivan.

Nikka Graff Lanzarone as Marisa, Laura Benanti as Candela, and Justin Guarini as Carlos.
Paul Kolnik

Nikka Graff Lanzarone as Marisa, Laura Benanti as Candela, and Justin Guarini as Carlos.

Pepa (Sheri Rene Scott) prepares the iconic gazpacho.
Paul Kolnik

Pepa (Sheri Rene Scott) prepares the iconic gazpacho.

Left to right: Vivian Nixon, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Nina Lafarga and Justin Guarini.
Paul Kolnik

Left to right: Vivian Nixon, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Nina Lafarga and Justin Guarini.

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