Photo by Sara Krulwich.
BOTTOM LINE: A zany, frenetic musical farce providing a platform for some of the best voices on Broadway.
For a while it appeared as if Lincoln Center's production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, now playing at the Belasco Theatre, was itself on the verge of breakdown: preview performances were postponed twice to allow for additional rehearsal time to iron out kinks in the show's sets and musical numbers. But having seen one of the show's last preview performances just a few days before official opening night, I can fairly state that whatever problems may have existed appear to have been resolved and that the show now not only is not on the verge of breakdown but, rather, is on the verge of a successful Broadway run.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a musical based on the film by Pedro Almodóvar, one first shown to wide acclaim at the New York Film Festival in 1988 and then nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The musical sticks closely to the plot of the film, which takes place in Madrid, and explores the relationships among several women and their partners, once partners, or partners to be. It centers on Pepa (Sherie Rene Scott) who is the mistress of Ivan (Brian Stokes Mitchell) who is married to (albeit separated from) the mentally unbalanced Lucia (Patti LuPone) but who is in the process of abandoning Pepa for Paulina (de' Adre Aziza) who, incidentally, is the attorney representing Lucia in her divorce action against Ivan. Got all that? Meanwhile, Pepa's close friend Candela (Laura Benanti) has just discovered that her latest lover is a Shiite terrorist. And Ivan and Lucia's son Carlos (Justin Guarini) and his uptight fiancée Marisa (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), in a bout of apartment hunting (largely to escape Luisa), just happen to arrive at Pepa's home.
If you think that this has all the makings of a French (well, Spanish) farce, you're absolutely right – and you still don't even know the half of it. Throw in an unplanned pregnancy, an aborted suicide attempt by Candela, telephones ripped from the walls, the attempted murder of almost everyone by means of Valium-spiked gazpacho, Marisa's loss of her virginity at the hands of a telephone repairman, a passionate interlude between Carlos and Candela, two inept cops, a motorcyclist and his angry girlfriend, a profoundly comic taxi driver (Danny Burstein), and Luisa's thwarted attempt to kill Ivan and you'll get an even better idea of what this zany production is all about.
Now add to the mix a terrific set incorporating a taxi and motorcycle, gymnasts' rope swings and first rate pyrotechnics, as well as several top flight actors and singers and you have all the ingredients for a wonderful evening's entertainment. In particular, Benanti comes close to stealing the show as Candela, and Mitchell is absolutely superb as Ivan. But Scott, LuPone, and Burstein surely deserve praise for their performances as well.
That is not to say that this is a perfect production. LuPone is certainly capable of playing a bigger role, and one can only speculate on why she agreed to play the secondary role offered her here. Indeed, when she belts out the number "Invisible" in the second act, you may well regret that she wasn't given more opportunities to display her extraordinary talent.
So far as the music goes, this is certainly no South Pacific nor West Side Story and, while some of the tunes are catchy, others are rather pedestrian. As for the lyrics, they are reminiscent of the "little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead." When they are good, as in Mitchell's nearly show-stopping number "Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today," they are very, very good indeed, but when they are bad, they are truly horrid. What can one say about lines such as "Madrid is my mama. Give me the nipple every day and I will taste it" and Mama Madrid might "push me out [but] I'll just crawl back up," other than that they simply make one cringe.
But these are small shortcomings in an otherwise highly pleasurable production. And who knows? If the cast and crew keeps working at improving this production, perhaps they'll iron them out in time as well.
(Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown plays at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenues, through January 23, 2011. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday at 2pm and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $36.50-$126.50 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. For more info visit lct.org.)