Friday, July 17, 2009



Music and Lyrics by David Kirshenbaum, book by Jack Heifner. Dir. Judith Ivey. Musical Staging by Dan Knechtges. Second Stage Theatre. (CLOSED)

The most frequent word to come up in the reviews of Vanities is banal. Critics cannot understand why a musical version of the '70s play by Jack Heifner was necessary, especially when even the added final scene feels outdated and false and the score by David Kirshenbaum adds little. Still, critics find that the sets by Anna Louizos, Judith Ivey's able direction, and the trio of actresses--Anneliese van der Pol, Lauren Kennedy, and Sarah Stiles--rise above the material in this ill-conceived musical. The silver lining for most critics is that the recession kept the show from Broadway, where it would have struggled.

CurtainUp B-
(Simon Saltzman) It almost doesn't matter that Vanities, A New Musical is an egregiously simplistic, determinedly sentimental rehashing of Jack Heifner's 1976 play Vanities. It also doesn't matter that the score (music and lyrics) by David Kirshenbaum (Summer '42) is discouragingly unexceptional. And why are none of the musicals numbers listed in the playbill? Nevertheless, what really matters is that you are suddenly hooked on a three-character musical about three life-long friends over three decades because of one stand-out performance: Sarah Stiles, as Joanne. Stiles originated the role of Joanne in both the Theatre Works Palo Alto and Pasadena Playhouse productions, and it is the show's good fortune she is in it for its New York run. Forgive me for gushing, but she gives the kind of dynamic, full throttle musical-comedy-styled performance that hasn't been seen since the heydays of Judy Holiday and Nancy Walker. Stiles is, in fact, as close to being a Walker-double as possible, her diminutive size, endearingly expressive face, powerhouse personality, superior comedic delivery are consolidated in a most wonderful way. She is a joy to watch. This is not to say that Lauren Kennedy, as Mary and Anneliese van der Pol as Kathy are not first rate performers. In step with Stiles from pep rally to penthouse, through thick and thin (thanks to Dan Knechtges's vigorous musical staging), they concertedly help to empower all the corny, cliché-riddled episodes that we are to endure.

Backstage B-
(David Sheward) This new tuner was originally slated to open on Broadway, but the recession put the kibosh on those plans. The economic downturn was probably the best thing that could have happened to Vanities. A Main Stem run for this just-okay, small-scale tuner would have most likely resulted in a short run. It's right where it belongs in a limited Off-Broadway noncommercial engagement. The show has its share of mild laughs and pleasant tunes, but it's not worth a ticket price of over $100. The staging by Tony-winning actor Judith Ivey is smooth and flexible, employing Anna Louizos' carefully detailed sets to create the different time periods. Being a performer herself, Ivey knows when to get out of the way and give her cast center stage. Each of the three has at least one number in which to shine.

The New Yorker C+
(Unsigned) There’s not much time for exploration of story line and character, let alone context: was that the Vietnam War, first-wave feminism, and Watergate that just flew by, or a bobby pin? Despite the trite handling of important issues and the shallow portraits of the women as feisty nincompoops, there are some very funny bits here, and the three actresses—Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles, and Anneliese van der Pol—all with beautiful voices, put everything they have into their performances.

TheaterMania C+
(Andy Propst) After a brief prologue, Vanities transports audiences to November 22, 1963 and the gymnasium of a small town high school near Dallas, one of the many settings marvelously created by Anna Louizos' elegant scenic design. It's where we first meet our three heroines. Cheerleader Kathy (Anneliese van der Pol, who gracefully tracks the character's arc from self-assurance to hopelessness) struggles to get her best friends Joanne (whom Sarah Stiles plays with surface cuteness, but a steely determination), and Mary (imbued with cleverness and later a devil-may-care demeanor by Lauren Kennedy) to concentrate on an upcoming pep rally, but boys and other social issues keep getting in the way. Here, Kirshenbaum's music shrewdly reflects how tight this group is; rarely during the first scene do any of the women sing solos, instead, they perform a variety of girl group-like songs.

Associated Press C
(Michael Kuchwara) The songs primarily mark time, done in by lyrics that often settle for greeting-card sentimentality. You wait for the plot to kick back in and get these girls to grow up and face life.Director Judith Ivey and Dan Knechtges, who's credited with musical staging, smoothly move the show along over an intermissionless 100 minutes... For a small show, "Vanities" has elaborate, colorful settings designed by Anna Louizos. Most prominent are the wooden clothes cabinets that swirl into place when the three ladies change hairstyles and costumes. The actresses don't break stride as they slip into clothes (the work of designer Joseph G. Aulisi) that change them from teenagers to young adults to mature women. It's the evening's most striking transformation.

(Matt Windman) The musical version of “Vanities,” which has a book by Heifner and songs by David Kirshenbaum, is perhaps too faithful to the original play. Except for a newly inserted optimistic finale, Kirshenbaum’s mildly pleasant songs have quietly replaced the original dialogue. His lyrics are true to character, but not too interesting or exciting... Judith Ivey has respectfully staged “Vanities” as a quiet chamber piece. But in spite of good intentions and much onstage talent, this is a musical that fails to catch fire or spark interest.

The New York Times C-
(Charles Isherwood) Joanne (Sarah Stiles) is the ditzy one, or perhaps I should say the ditziest one, since all three girls are depicted as having little more than boys and clothes and the big dance on their minds. Which does not make them very interesting company, I’m afraid, despite the winking satiric tone the authors take to their petty obsessions. In the three decades since the original play became a runaway hit and regional theater mainstay after opening Off Broadway (with Kathy Bates playing Joanne), the stereotype of the perky cheerleader has been so repeatedly and relentlessly poked, prodded and parodied that returning to the subject almost a decade into another century seems a futile exercise in the debunking of American myths. What’s left to debunk? Maybe it’s time to leave the benighted girls to dream their sweet, trivial dreams in peace... Mr. Kirshenbaum’s serviceable pop score, which nods in the direction of chart toppers like Burt Bacharach at some points and the more ruminative melodies of Stephen Sondheim at others, provides little in the way of defining depth for the characters. Too often it reverts to the same musical moods and self-actualization clichés. The cartoony pep of Mr. Heifner’s book in the first scenes gives way to a similarly on-the-surface examination of the upheavals and disappointments of the women’s later lives. (Although it’s really not much later: the women are presented as having evolved drastically before they’ve turned 30.)

New York Post C-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) There isn't a shred of suspense in Jack Heifner's book, based on his own 1976 play. The only surprise is that Kathy, the unlucky-in-love PE major, doesn't turn out to be gay. In this show, it rates as a daring buckling of expectations. That said, the 95 minutes zip along smoothly in the hands of actress-turned-director Judith Ivey (with help from Dan Knechtges for the musical stagings). The trickiest parts occur between scenes, when Kennedy, Stiles and van der Pol, fishing accessories from the vanities that give the piece its name, change costumes in full view while singing. At least David Kirshenbaum's light score doesn't complicate matters by throwing vocal challenges their way.

Lighting & Sound America C-
(David Barbour) Vanities was always enjoyable because of its refreshing absence of a thesis statement. Instead, through little bits of everyday conversation, we discovered the young ladies' foibles, and their hidebound mores. ("When I found out George Eliot was a woman, I got all confused!") Without editorializing, we saw them grow apart and struggle with realities they could never have imagined as teenagers... David Kirshenbaum's songs consist of pleasant, polished, and thoroughly disposable pop music of no particular character; this is less a comment on his talent than on the difficulties of finding reasons to make these characters sing. Oddly, except for one mildly Burt Bachararch-ish tune, Kirshenbaum avoids period pastiche. A couple of the big pieces -- "Flying into the Future," in which Mary itches to cut loose from the sorority house, and "Cute Boys with Short Haircuts," in which Kathy basically says the hell with men -- are overscaled for this modest comedy. Oddly, Heifner, who wrote the book, has dispensed with some of the script's best and edgiest jokes -- including a memorable shock laugh about John F. Kennedy's assassination. Even more surprisingly, his original point, that all three young ladies were ill-served by upbringings that left them unable to cope with changing times, is now erased by a new finale, set years later in a funeral parlor, when everyone convenes for a big sisterhood-is-powerful hug. I'm the last person to complain if he wants to reverse the point of the play -- it's his play, and he can do what he wants with it -- but I can't help but feeling that the Vanities, a New Musical isn't a patch on just plain old Vanities.

Time Out New York C-
(Adam Feldman) Three Texas cheerleaders mirror their changing times in Vanities, which tracks the girls through 25 years of pom-poms and circumstance. Adapted by Jack Heifner from his own 1976 Off Broadway hit, and outfitted with a modest new score by David Kirshenbaum, this new musical was originally slated to open on Broadway last season; smartly, its would-be producers got cold feet, and Vanities wound up in the supportive arms of Second Stage Theatre, which has given it a solid staging (on a smart set by Anna Louizos). There’s only so much that director Judith Ivey can do, however, with a piece in which characters begin as clichés and then mature into types.

Variety D+
(David Rooney) Whether expressed in dialogue -- much of it lifted intact from Heifner's play -- or in David Kirshenbaum's pleasant but samey showtunes inflected with period pop sounds, the girls' concerns are standard issue. The early talk focuses on boyfriends, sex, parties and popularity, dreams of marriage, home and family or, in Mary's case, of beguiling new horizons. But the show's own outlook is decidedly narrow... Social context is mostly glossed over, and while the play conveyed a sense of women coming of age during the burgeoning feminist movement, albeit in their own hermetic bubble, the musical fabricates a dated, thoroughly anonymous sitcom world. It's a banal version of every femme-centric character piece that's ever played on screens big or small, from "Steel Magnolias" and "The First Wives Club" to "The Golden Girls" and "Designing Women." But its humor has none of the bite or freshness of any of those sisterhood models. The lack of texture is especially a problem in the Manhattan interlude; up to that point, the girls have been cardboard cutouts, so the sudden grit of their animosities doesn't wash. And the show doesn't always ring true. Would a Joni Mitchell-loving libertarian like Mary really have been accepted in the rigidly conservative confines of a 1968 Dallas Kappa sorority house? While Anna Louizos' versatile sets have fun touches and Joseph G. Aulisi's costumes add character definition, Dan Knechtges' choreography is perky but unexciting, and Judith Ivey's listless direction is too by-the-numbers to foster emotional investment. Kennedy, Stiles and van der Pol all bring big, confident voices and likable personalities, but the writing denies them any edge at all.

Bloomberg News D+
(John Simon) All good and well until it becomes a musical. The play contented itself with three scenes in 1963, 1968 and 1974. The musical adds a fourth scene, “years later,” in which the trio, looking hardly older, provides a totally supererogatory -- and improbable -- anticlimax. Poorer yet is the score. Kirshenbaum’s music could give monotony a worse name: Not only is it tuneless, it manages not even to come up with some varieties of tunelessness. The lyrics, which do not move the action an inch forward, prove little beyond Kirshenbaum’s possession of a rhyming dictionary. A further liability is Dan Knechtges’s choreography, which espouses all the well-worn dance cliches. Judith Ivey’s direction, on the other hand, makes a laudable effort to invest basically static situations with as much movement as they can bear.

Talkin' Broadway D
(Matthew Murray) Without the darker, more ominous undertones on which the original play thrived, the fights and reconciliations along the way are meaningless. The first third of the play ended with the girls blithely waving off President Kennedy's assassination by cheering that that evening's football game would go on as scheduled; the corresponding section of the musical climaxes with a song called "I Can't Imagine," in which the three pledge eternal friendship. It's such reconfiguring that makes this Vanities seem like Kirshenbaum and Heifner's attempt to stake a claim to the theatregoing dollars of young women who've outgrown Wicked and Legally Blonde rather than any sort of an artistic or dramatic statement. The score is a particular disappointment, as Kirshenbaum is a major up-and-coming talent. If he miscalculated with his Brazil-tinged, by-the-numbers musical-comedy writing for Party Come Here, his intentionally awkward and emotionally discordant songs for Summer of '42 were alternately hilariously and hauntingly right for an adolescent coming-of-age saga. What he's written here feels like the melodic equivalent of giving up, a too-willing adherence to an instruction in the original script that advises the "music must not make a statement. It should be incidental."

Show Showdown D-
(Wendy Caster) The new musical version of Vanities, adapted by Jack Heifner from his 1976 play, is dated. While the ins and outs of friendship and loyalty are universal, this particular story depends on now-cliché tropes that limit its story to a tiny time and place. The new version has nothing new to say, which might be okay if it said the old things better. The three actresses give it their all, and there are moments that work, but mostly it just isn’t particularly interesting. The songs add little to the mix.

The Daily News D-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Though likable, the actresses are hamstrung by thin material and monochromatic characters. Mary (Lauren Kennedy) is the sexed-up one, Kathy (Anneliese van der Pol) is the organized one, and Joanne (Sarah Stiles) is the goofy one and, weirdly, the only one with a sagebrush twang. To compensate, they all tend to push too hard, so there's an aggressive quality to the performances. It's sometimes a bit unpleasant when they harmonize. The element of the production that gets it (almost) perfect, is Anna Louizos' breezy scenic design, which evokes eras with iconic images, like the album jacket of Joni Mitchell's "Clouds" in the 1968 college scene (so what if the LP came out in '69). Mitchell's mug loomed large for me as a restless Mary sang some jarringly simplistic lines: "Mama is a coward. Mama is a drunk. Mama sleeps with Howard when she gets in a funk." I swear I saw Joni, queen of brainy and incisive lyrics, roll her eyes. It wasn't her. It was me.

The Bergen Record D-
(Robert Feldberg) David Kirshenbaum's songs for the simplistic, unpersuasive narrative – one of the women ends up owning an art gallery, while another becomes a novelist – add nothing to the telling. The heart sinks with the opening number, which sounds like a hundred other perky, personality-free contemporary show tunes. "I don't wanna miss a thing," the women sing. "I know I can have it all … I want the American dream … It's what Mom and Dad both promised." Unless you've just arrived from Mars, you'll recognize the signal that all will not go well. After that, the songs simply express what the women can just say to one another, or even have already said. Only a few times does a number convey someone's deeper feelings... "Vanities" was headed to Broadway last February, when the producers canceled the production, citing the uncertain economy. They owe the recession a favor.

CurtainUp B- 9; Backstage B- 9; The New Yorker C+ 8; TheaterMania C+ 8; AP C 7; AMNY C- 6; The New York Times C- 6; New York Post C- 6; Lighting & Sound America C- 6; TONY C- 6; Variety D+ 5; Bloomberg News D+ 5; Talkin' Broadway D 4; Show Showdown D- 3; The Daily News D- 3; The Bergen Record D- 3; TOTAL: 94/16 = 5.875 (C-)

No comments: