Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
A new musical based on the film by Pedro Almodóvar
Book by Jeffrey Lane
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Location: Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, New York, New York
Pepa – Sherie Rene Scott
Ivan – Brian Stokes Mitchell
Lucia – Patti LuPone
Paulina – de’Adre Aziza
Marisa – Nikka Graff Lanzarone
Concierge – Mary Beth Peil
Taxi Driver – Danny Burstein
Carlos – Justin Guarini
Candela – Laura Benanti
Dazzling Parts Make a Discordant Whole
A splatter of gazpacho stains an oversized recipe of the Spanish favorite that hangs before the stage at The Belasco Theater. Women on The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the new musical adaptation of the 1988 film by famed director Pedro Almodóvar with book by Jeffrey Lane and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, whets your aesthetic appetite with playful and evocative imagery before it has even begun. As the lights dim, uneasy music swells from the pit and the gazpacho stain begins to swirl and distort. Slowly the curtain rises to reveal a taxi driver played by Danny Burstein as he introduces Almodóvar’s Madrid of the 1980s, a parade of flashing color, high heels and mini skirts.
Directed by Tony award winning director Barlett Sher, the man behind a string of Lincoln Center hits such as A Light in the Piazza, Awake and Sing!, and recently South Pacific, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown delivers a rich, visual feast where women in pursuit of their desires transverse a surreal world. Cinema collides with theater to create an unexpected adventure for the senses. A virtual set is constructed by projections of shifting blocks of color that overlap with computer animation.
Amid the kaleidoscope, there is a story. Voiceover actress Pepa, portrayed by the acclaimed Sherie Renee Scott, discovers that her lover Ivan, played by baritone sensation Brian Stokes Mitchell, has left her, suddenly. Distraught and confused, Pepa soon realizes that she is being chased by a mysterious woman in a wide brim hat. The stalker behind the sunglasses is none other than Tony Award winner Patti LuPone who plays Ivan’s crazed wife, Lucia, who is in the midst of finally divorcing her cheating husband. Her son Carlos (Justin Guarini) tries to be there for his troubled mother as she prepares for her hearing with divorce attorney Paulina (de’Adre Azziz), but his girlfriend Marisa (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) is urging him to move out of his mother’s apartment. Pepa’s model friend, Candela played with hilarious vivacity by Tony winner Laura Benanti, realizes that she is in the middle of her own toxic relationship. Desperate to contact her friend she leaves a barrage of phone messages in the song “Model Behavior,” an electric comic highpoint of the first act.
The city of Madrid looms large as the musical’s unofficial starring character. Filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar says of his hometown in the 1980s “Madrid was a party. Democracy had arrived in our country a decade before, and the most playful, hedonistic side of the Spanish character had exploded.” Sher’s adaptation captures the playful whimsy of the post-Franco years with flying sets, outlandish costumes and campy performances, but does not develop that sense of explosive freedom. If anything, the story is a bit old fashioned despite the pop of its surface appeal. Three strong, gorgeous women lose it over a man who traffics only clichéd romance and painted on smiles.
Through a series of coincidences and mistakes, the characters pile up on Pepa’s couch to confront that demon love for ruining their lives. Although there are some funny twists and turns, an overwrought plot keeps the play from really taking off until the second act, once all of the characters and subplots have been established. Even then, the pathos of the scorned women verges on the melodramatic. Some of this is owed to the original, which rides the line between telenovela and camp. The biting sardonic tone of the film gets lost in the translation, however. Musical theater by its very form makes bigger the emotions of the characters through song, which sometimes sends the play off its campy course into the waters of sentimentality.
This is most evident with the character of Pepa played by Sheri Renee Scott. Her gentle singing on songs like “Mother’s Day” or “Island” seem out of place against farcical over-the-top comedic numbers like Benanti’s “Model Behavior” or the silly show opener, “Madrid” sung by Danny Burstein. It is hard to shift gears from a comic romp in order to empathize with the realistically drawn performance of Scott. Next to the ironic posturing of Benanti or the exaggerated drama of LuPone, Scott’s introspection breaks rhythm with the rest of the show, sometimes coming off as sentimental or maudlin. The production strains to balance these two styles, often stumbling on the transitions between them.
Patti LuPone, however, does not stumble. In her mesmerizing performance of the show’s best song “Invisible” the actress masterfully transforms a farcical kangaroo court scene into a powerful portrayal of a woman confronting true misery. One by one, the spectacular bells and whistles of the production disappear to leave an exposed and raw LuPone standing alone on a bare stage. Her monumental voice soars through the theater as she reveals a hauntingly vulnerable soul on the brink of collapse. It is a theatrical experience worth the price of admission.
The performances from this stellar cast are each individually strong, but at times compete with one another. As the events of the plot enfold, there is a lack of mounting tension, partly because it’s hard to discern who or what is driving the action forward. As the divas fan out, it’s hard to know where to fix our gaze.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown achieves a high level of technical innovation, Lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and video designer Sven Ortel together create a world of shape shifting images and hues that careen and glide across Michael Yeargan’s fantastically collapsible set. Apartments, offices, courtrooms and city streets appear out of nowhere only to dissemble and fly away in an instant. It’s as if anything could happen at any moment, making that feeling of being on the verge palpable. If only these women were thinking about something more than how a man failed them, we might have found that explosive freedom Almodóvar promised.