"Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"… By Isa Goldberg
The announcement of a Broadway musical with a cast of A list Broadway actors (Sherie Rene Scott, Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti, de’Adre Aziza, Mary Beth Peil, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Danny Burstein) and one American Idol (Justin Guarini), brings high expectations to the screen-to-stage adaptation of Almodovar’s 1988 film, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” It’s the film that brought him an international reputation.
A camp throw back to the Doris Day movies of the ‘50s about the perfect housewife and the ideal marriage, Almodovar’s farce brings his women characters into strong relief. Opinionated and driven, they fall into senseless turmoil when abandoned by men. The film’s comic charm ignites when our heroines finally push them away with unbridled vengeance.
Fortunately, that sense of madcap caprice comes across in the musical’s design, especially Michael Yeargen’s sets and Sven Ortel’s projections. Rooms glide into place while scenes of Madrid in the background cascade across the outlines of Pepa’s (Sherie Rene Scott’s) windows, creating a network of geometric surfaces that break out into classic city views. With their bright colors, the Mondrian-like patterns form a brilliant background.
And Catherine Zuber’s costumes are delightfully surprising character studies. For the killer, Lucia (Patti LuPone), a bright pink coat like the inside of a matador’s cape wraps around a leopard dress. In the role of Candela, the woman who thinks being trapped in her home by a Shiite terrorist is blissfully romantic, Laura Benanti remains largely naked in whatever strange attire she throws on. And Sherie Rene Scott is smartly outfitted in tailor made suits, much like the ‘50s movie icons that her character celebrates.
But beyond the parade of sets and costumes, the onstage action is unfocused, lacking momentum in spite of much freneticism. In keeping with the film, the narrative is revealed through glimpses into the women’s lives. Voice mail messages, lyrics in a song, and lots of coincidences create the matrix, however illogical, that gives us a window into relationships and betrayals. In Almodovar’s hands, this technique invites the audience into an intimacy with his women heroines that is simply missing from the musical adaptation. Watching the show on stage we don’t experience empathy for the women characters, nor do we share their victory in rejecting their lousy lotharios.
For one thing, their actions only matter if we see what they are reacting against, and the male characters here are flimsy at best. Brian Stokes Mitchell as the philandering movie director Ivan is a humorless cad, summed up in the lyrical refrain, “Blah, blah, blah.” The role as adapted by Jeffrey Lane, doesn’t give us much of a Don Juan. Similarly, Justin Guarini as Carlos, Ivan’s son, is too much of a caricature, bordering on the slapstick. Danny Burstein provides a splash of comedy as the mambo-obsessed Taxi Driver who fills us in on the action.
But the character that’s most dramatically altered in the musical is Lucia (Patti LuPone), Ivan’s wife who, in the movie, arrives only at the end thirstier than a vampire. Here, the character is laden with a strange conflict between getting her husband back and killing him. It’s confusion over motive that restrains the dramatically unrestrainable LuPone.
Laura Benanti is by far the most convincing and entertaining as the model who falls in love with her tormentor. She also has the best song, a very talky number that sparkles with the character’s wacky, mindless behavior. But that’s the exception, as most of the lyrics are not memorable. And while the music starts out with great crescendo and a thriving Latin beat, it diminishes into the background by the second act.
Finally, it is precisely Almodovar’s sensitivity for his female characters that makes “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” an edgy venture for a Broadway musical. Missing that is missing the point.
“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,”
a production of Lincoln Center Theater is performed at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8p.m. with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets call 212-239-6200, go to Telecharge.com or visit the box office at the Belasco Theatre.
Photos: Paul Kolnik