Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown: Could the Flop Flip?
It is easy to understand why “Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown” was the most anticipated Broadway show of the Fall season, and how until “Spider-man,” it was the most targeted for sniping. What is harder to explain is the degree to which expectation shaped not just the reaction to the show but, I suspect, the show itself – and how revised expectations could work in a theatergoer’s favor.
Based on Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 breakthrough international hit, the musical follows its source material closely, taking place in Madrid in 1987 and showing an extravagantly harried day in the lives of five inter-related madrileñas who more or less fit the title thanks to their love lives.
For particulars, let’s go to the videotape:
The YouTube video sample above first offers snippets of 43 moments in the musical in less than 90 seconds, and then lingers on seven scenes:
1. Pepa (played by Sherie Rene Scott), is a long-time mistress of Ivan, who has broken up with her via a telephone answering machine when the musical begins. (In the film, Pepa and Ivan are both movie dubbers, who dub films into Spanish; in the musical, they dub the singing.) In the middle of a dubbing session, Pepa has fainted, and a doctor has just poked a needle in her arm to draw blood for some tests. Here she sings, “Lovesick,” to a tango-inflected tune:
You think that Cupid’s got a bow
Well, no Cupid’s got a needle
It’ll find a vein
Careful, cause you’ll bleed a little
2. Lucia (Patti LuPone) was Ivan’s wife, but he left her too, which drove her years earlier into a mental institution, and now, released, she is suing him. In court, she is asked whether she wants to say a few words. She says more than the judge or her attorney expects, first a recounting of her entire life, and then in a bossa nova melody entitled “Invisible,” how she realized her husband had in effect abandoned her:
He was invisible,
Like a magic trick, like a miracle.
I don’t know how he did it –
He was gone but he still was there
In later stanzas, she sings about how “the life I had wanted/the life I was promised/the life I had planned” had become invisible and then finally she herself has become invisible.
3. Candela, a fashion model who is Pepa’s friend (Laura Benanti), has a problem, which she tries to explain to Pepa in the first of a series of telephone calls that make up the song, “Model Behavior,” which is the best-performed song in the show.
Candela talks frantically about the man she met in a café
He’s – what’s the word — swarthy like a desert sheik
And he’s been here in my apartment for about a week.
The only problem is that he’s a terrorist.
4. In the song “Microphone,” Ivan the womanizer (Brian Stokes Mitchell) explains the art of seduction to his son Carlos (Justin Guarini)
5. Pepa rides in a cab with a talkative driver (Danny Burstein) who (as in the movie) offers her everything from magazines to Mambo music, the first of several such scenes.
6. Carlos (Ivan’s son) meets Pepa (Ivan’s ex-mistress) for the first time in Pepa’s penthouse apartment. This is a coincidence. Carlos arrived with his fiancé (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) because he is looking for an apartment, and Pepa wants to sublet her place.
7. Lucia (Carlos’s mother, Ivan’s abandoned wife) treats Carlos’s fiancé as if she were the maid.
These scenes, selected for the video to promote the musical, do a good job of it. David Yazbeck’s lyrics are clever, his music is often catchy, the performers are effective, and the scenes give a hint at the farcical goings-on.
Add to this an attention to visual detail that required not just Michael Yeargan’s elaborate sets and Catherine Zuber’s energetic costumes but three separate designers for video projections, aerial design and special effects. The result is some splendid tableaux, similar at times to those so praised in “Brief Encounter”:
An essential difference between the two Broadway shows is that “Brief Encounter” was based on a film that tells a simple love story, giving it room to noodle around with stagecraft, while the film “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” is a convoluted farce mixed with complicated melodrama. The main rap against the musical is hard to dismiss – that there is simply too much in it, 150 minutes crammed with 17 songs, a cast of 25 including some of the brightest talents on Broadway, scene changes full of projections that one wag compared to a hyperkinetic screen saver, and an avalanche of theatrical effects, from a bed that is actually set aflame to a lot of moving traffic (that taxi, a motorcycle, roller-skaters, telephone booths sliding into place) to the dangling of the women stars literally from the rafters; at the end of Act I each is given her own industrial-strength telephone cord to climb up, some in the audience surely seeing this as the rope the production was giving them to hang themselves.
But why is this sensory overload labeled terminally distracting while the sensory bombardment at, say, “American Idiot,” is considered an innovation? True, Idiot is more focused and way shorter. But the central answer may be that the expectations were different. If you know Almodovar’s film, you’re confused by this speeded-up version that nevertheless lasts an hour longer. If you’ve seen Brian Stokes Mitchell in “Kiss Me Kate,” or Patti LuPone in “Gypsy,” if you loved director Bartlett Sher’s production of “South Pacific” or of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” you can’t help but conclude that “Women on the Verge” is not their best work.
Brimming with expectation, and viewing a show that was probably not ready – the opening night had been delayed to fix technical glitches but also rework the show – many critics were disappointed, and “Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown” has been widely designated a flop. Could this work in the show’s favor in the time remaining? (Part of the Lincoln Center Theater season, it was scheduled from the beginning as a limited-run production through January 23.) Could the expectations have become so low that you’ll forget the movie, forget the stars’ better shows, and be pleasantly surprised by the (few) moments that amaze?
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
At the Belasco Theater, 111 West 44th Street;
Based on the film by Pedro Almodóvar; book by Jeffrey Lane; music and lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed by Bartlett Sher; choreography by Christopher Gattelli; sets by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Scott Lehrer; projections by Sven Ortel; aerial design by the Sky Box; special effects by Gregory Meeh; wig and hair design by Charles LaPointe; makeup design by Dick Page
Orchestrations by Simon Hale; additional orchestrations by Jim Abbott and Yazbek; music direction by Abbott
Cast: de’Adre Aziza (Paulina), Laura Benanti (Candela), Danny Burstein (Taxi Driver), Justin Guarini (Carlos), Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Marisa), Patti LuPone (Lucia), Brian Stokes Mitchell (Ivan), Mary Beth Peil (Pepa’s Concierge), Luis Salgado (Malik) and Sherie Rene Scott (Pepa).
May be inappropriate for 14 and under.
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
Ticket prices: $36.50 to $126.50. Student rush: $21.50
“Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown” is set to run through January 23.
Buy tickets to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
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