Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Book by Jeffrey Lane
Music and lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Belasco Theatre, New York City

A Broadway musical version of Pedro Almodovar’s first big hit movie “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” sounds like so much fun, doesn’t it? The idea generated a huge buzz of excited anticipation, especially when the casting was announced: Sherie Rene Scott (of last year’s “Everyday Rapture”) as Pepa, the Carmen Maura role; Brian Stokes Mitchell (star of “Kiss Me Kate,” “Ragtime,” and “Man of La Mancha”) as Ivan, the man who is stringing her and several other women along; Patti LuPone (two-time Tony winner for “Evita” and “Gypsy”) as Lucia, Ivan’s crazy wife; Laura Benanti (who played Gypsy Rose Lee to LuPone’s Mama Rose) as Pepa’s ditsy best friend Candela, who’s sleeping with a terrorist; and Nikka Graff Lanzarone as a Marisa tall, long-faced and unusual-looking enough to stand in for the Picasso-esque Rossy de Palma. And yet the finished product is no fun at all. I would bet that almost everyone who walks into the Belasco Theatre walks out with a slight headache from straining to love a show that just can’t be loved.

Almodovar’s 1988 film is no cinematic masterpiece. It’s a comic soap opera that we remember fondly for its dazzling visual style (static sets in saturated Crayon colors), its classically campy deadpan attitude toward its characters’ hyped-up romantic fixations, and its ludicrous plot involving a Valium-laced blenderful of gazpacho. Bartlett Sher’s stage production tries to recreate the energy of the movie with a hyperkinetic visual design whose cleverness and density overpower the anemic book (by TV writer Jeffrey Lane) and score (by David Yazbek, who wrote two other movies-turned-Broadway musicals, “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”). Not one song in this show connects with the audience. They all sound like the minor numbers you sit through waiting for the good stuff and skip over when you’re listening to the original cast album. Scott’s voice, one of Broadway’s most luscious, is wasted on a series of generic ballads. Virtually everything about LuPone’s role, from her outlandish hats to her overstuffed monologue and solo in the second act, feels padded in an attempt to lure a star into playing a decidedly minor role. Benanti manages to keep the audience mildly entertained, even if her performance doesn’t entail much more than a silly walk. I rather enjoyed Danny Burstein’s turn as the dyed-blond taxi driver, except that he kept appearing and then disappearing as quasi-narrator of the show, as if two drafts of the script were being performed at the same time.

This may sound nutty, but I think the fatal error of the musical is that there weren’t enough gay guys involved in its creation. Almodovar’s movie was clearly made by a gay man who deeply loves and understands women and knows when to take them seriously and when not. Imagine if “Sex and the City” were written, directed, and produced by Clint Eastwood, and you might get a sense of what Broadway’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” is like.

CultureVulture.net, November 20, 2010