Friday, July 24, 2009

Vanities, A New Musical

What sinks this musical version of the 1976 play Vanities is the main ingredient that separates it from the original -- the music. This frothy story spanning the lives of three best friends, from their high school cheerleading days in 1963 up to 1975 when they are in their late 20s, should have been ripe for musicalization. Actually, it still is. It just needs a better songwriter.

David Kirshenbaum’s music sounds the same in song after song, and his lyrics are so over-rhymed that I began trying to guess what word would end each line, based on the one that had ended the previous line. Anticipation, contemplation, sophistication. It was like playing the word games on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday.”

Director Judith Ivey and music director is Bryan Perri seem to be trying to breathe some life into the limp songs by allowing the women to shout them out at painfully high volumes. Far too few are sung relationally, rather one or the other of the women usually takes center stage and belts out like a contestant on “American Idol.” I kept thinking, “Oh, no, not another song.”

And then there’s Dan Knechtges’ repetitive choreography, which at times made me think of the von Trapp children singing “So Long, Farewell” in the movie version of The Sound of Music. I kept expecting to hear one of the women sing about “popping out to say cuckoo.”

I had liked the play version when I saw it in the early 1980s with some of my women friends at a small community theatre in Annapolis, MD. It’s an enjoyable little show, in spite of the clich├ęd story line and stereotypical characters. Jack Heifner wrote the play and has written the musical’s book.

Lauren Kennedy as Mary is the most fun character because she’s the rebel, and she gets to wear the best clothes. I especially liked the orange and pink mini dress that reminded me of Twiggy and Marlo Thomas in “That Girl.” Joseph G. Aulisi has done a nice job with the costumes.

As Kathy, Anneliese van der Pol is more appealing at the end as her more mature self than as the hyper-organized small town Texas schoolgirl in the beginning.

Joanne (Sarah Stiles) is the character who is really hard to take. Actually she’s a caricature, the virgin who dates the same boy for six years, marries him, becomes a stay-at-home mom with three children and a house in Greenwich, unaware that he’s having multiple affairs. She is screechingly annoying in most of her scenes, especially the one on Kathy’s Manhattan penthouse terrace (attractive set by Anna Louizos) in which she gets drunk on champagne. Acting drunk can get over the top if not well handled, and Stiles does not handle it well. “We’re singing the same old music,” she shrieks at one point. Sadly the whole show feels as if it’s singing the same old music.

Originally scheduled to play Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, the producers, citing the troubled economy, wisely decided to open Off-Broadway at Second Stage. The show arrives here having been produced at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, CA in 2006. It also was showcased at the 2006 National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) Festival of New Musicals and seen at Pasadena Playhouse in August 2008.

Vanities, A New Musical is scheduled to run through Aug. 9. at Second Stage Theatre, 307 W. 43rd St., off 8th Avenue. Tickets are available by calling (212) 246-4422, (800) 766-6048 or online at

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