Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,
at Broadway's Belasco Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****
Before Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown recedes to a distant memory, here's my bottom line: it wasn't a great musical but I had a good time. Seeing Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti and Brian Stokes Mitchell in the same show was a treat, even if I didn't feel totally swept up in the story.
The book, by Jeffrey Lane, is based on the Pedro Almodovar movie about a group of women in Madrid in 1987 who are driven to the breaking point by the men in their lives. While I've never seen the film I knew the musical, with a score by David Yazbek, was supposed to be a dark comedy, with over-the-top characters and a convoluted plot in the style of a telenovela.
Gazpacho also plays a big role in the musical - there's a recipe for it on the show's curtain. Since I don't speak Spanish I didn't understand all of the ingredients and the key word: frio. (It means cold, which is how the soup is served.) So the symbolism kind of escaped me.
The main character in Women on the Verge, played by Sherie Rene Scott, is Pepa, an actress who makes a living dubbing foreign films. She's distraught after her longtime boyfriend, Ivan (a very suave Mitchell), abruptly breaks up with her, via a message on her answering machine.
At the same time her good friend Candela, a frantic, not-too-bright model played by Benanti, is in a troubled relationship of her own: she fears that her boyfriend may be a terrorist, and she comes to Pepa for help.
Also in the mix are LuPone as Ivan's mentally unstable wife, Lucia; a charming Justin Guarini as Carlos, Ivan and Lucia's son; Nikka Graff Lanzarone as Marisa, Carlos' domineering fiancee; De'Adre Aziza as Paulina, a take-charge lawyer; and Mary Beth Peil as the sweet concierge in Pepa's apartment building. There's also Danny Burstein as the helpful taxi driver who chauffeurs Pepa around town.
Unfortunately as Pepa, Scott doesn't really stand out in this ensemble and I felt she was miscast. Her performance seemed a little flat, while everyone else was operating at a faster speed, more zany and memorable. Although she does have a nice solo number, "Mother's Day," that I thought was poignant.
In contrast, Benanti was an absolute delight as Candela. She was hilarious and truly seemed to capture the outrageous style that I was expecting from the musical. She made the story interesting and exciting to watch in a way that Pepa never did for me.
I also liked LuPone, whose Lucia lurked in the background, disguised in a series of large hats as she searched for Ivan. It was funny and at the same time, a sad story about an abandoned wife. Of course she has a big solo, "Invisible," which the audience ate up, myself included.
As the smooth-talking Ivan, Mitchell doesn't have a lot to do but he also gets a song, "Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today." This was my first time hearing him perform live - and I have to say it was pretty incredible. What a deep, powerful voice. I can't believe he's the same actor I used to watch as Dr. "Jackpot" Jackson on Trapper John M.D.
Despite a terrific performance from Benanti and the thrill of hearing Mitchell and LuPone, Women on the Verge seemed to be lacking something. I was entertained but I wasn't captivated. I don't know, maybe Bartlett Sher wasn't the right director for this musical. Maybe it just wasn't wacky enough.
Yazbek's score didn't leave a lasting impression and despite Burstein's opening number, "Madrid," I didn't feel transported to the Spanish capital or like I was in some kind of English-language version of a Spanish soap opera. (The song is a lively ensemble number that's supposed to set the tone but it contains some cringe-worthy lyrics involving mother's milk.)
In the Playbill, Almodovar says his films from the 1980s, coming a decade after the establishment of democracy in Spain, "reflect that explosion of freedom which illuminated everything. You could say that even grief was joyful."
Grief and joy sprinkled with a touch of craziness against the backdrop of Spain emerging from dictatorship. I get it. Unfortunately, I don't think the musical version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown truly got it.