Sunday, May 01, 2011

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (CD Review)

According to the invaluable StageGrade, the Broadway musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown received an average grade of C- from a total of 31 critics. While it's clear that Women on the Verge has no Tony Award for Best Musical in its future, it's a shoo-in for most underrated show of the decade. It's hard to suss out why a show doesn't land, though I have seen a number of theories posited about this one, including that it was overdirected and unfocused. My personal theory is that the show took too long to get to the women and lost the audience along the way. Also, it had an awfully non-Hispanic cast for a show that took place in Spain, and Danny Burstein's performance as the cab driver veered perilously close to racial insensitivity. (My review of the show is here.)

However, Monday morning quarterbacking is no less frequent--and no more useful--in theatre than in football, and whatever its faults, Women on the Verge had and has many strengths. To start with, as this welcome original cast recording from the excellent Ghostlight Records demonstrates, the score is top-drawer, with composer/lyricist David Yazbek once again combining wit and energy to write an audience-friendly, completely enjoyable score. From the overture on, this is a score that moves. It completely sells the group nervous breakdown of the title, while also being melodic, wry, and entertaining. The lyrics are flat-out fun and quite clever. My favorite song is "Lovesick," which perfectly expresses the feeling of insanity that can accompany unrequited love. For example:
You're sick of what you're saying.
You're sick of what you're thinking.
You'd have another drink
Except you're sick of what you're drinking.
You shudder, you tingle
The paramedic comes--
You wonder if he's single.
These lyrics--all of David Yazbek's lyrics--sit perfectly on his melodies, giving the emotion a compelling propulsion and totally pleasing the ear. And Sherie Rene Scott nails the vocal.

"Invisible," Yazbek's ballad of the disappearance of love, goes for poignancy instead of humor, and Patti LuPone does it full justice. Again, the lyrics are excellent. For instance:
You eat your lunch,
A year is gone.
You go to bed, ten years are gone
Then you wake up and wonder
Where is it hiding?
Where did it go?
I don't understand
The life I had wanted.
The life I was promised
The life I had planned?

Then I realized it--
It was invisible.
Then there is the wonderful, insane "Model Behavior," in which the wonderful, insane Laura Benanti plays the wonderful, insane Candela leaving a series of phone messages on her friend Pepa's answering machine. For example:
I'm feeling kind of woozy.
I've been crying for an hour.
And my boyfriend has an Uzi
And he doesn't clean the shower.
It's interesting to compare the performances on the CD with the live performances. Sherie Rene Scott comes across much better on the CD. She seemed almost lost in the show, but here she provides a full, textured character, and her singing is glorious (though her accent is still weak). Patti LuPone and Laura Benani were/are equally superb in both mediums. Brian Stokes Mitchell comes across less effectively on the CD, perhaps because his wry, self-mocking smile is not there to undercut the smarminess of the character.  Justin Guarini is equally likeable in both mediums. The 16-person orchestra, conducted by Jim Abbott, is a delight.

The physical presentation of the CD is absolutely top of the line. The 42-page, full-color booklet includes essays by Pedro Almodóvar, director of the movie on which the musical is based, and Frank Rich. There is a detailed synopsis, complete lyrics, and a slew of wonderful pictures. Original cast recordings are never a given--my heart still breaks that James Joyce's The Dead was never recorded--and many thanks are owed to Ghostlight Records and Sh-K-Boom for their commitment to the fabulous American art form of the musical and to its incredibly talented practitioners.

(Reviewer's copy.)


Anonymous said...

I totally enjoyed this messy show, and I'm sure I'll wear out the CD trying to learn the complicated (and, for me, therefore worth listening to) lyrics!

Thanks for your excellent review!

Esther said...

Great review. I saw the musical and liked it but didn't love it (or Sherie Rene Scott). A couple months later I finally saw the movie and just wondered, why did they make it into a musical? I could see it working as a play, like maybe a farce, but it didn't cry out for songs. As a result, there was a lot of shoehorning in of songs so that actors who didn't really have big roles in the movie could get a solo number, like Patti LuPone and Brian Stokes Mitchell. But I'm looking forward to getting the CD and listening again. And I agree, Danny Burstein's number was especially bad onstage.

Wendy Caster said...

Thanks to both commentors on your comments and on taking the time to write! Esther, I have to agree that Women on the Verge did not cry out to be musicalized. But I still really, really, really like the CD.

Cameron Kelsall said...

I couldn't agree more, Wendy. I had some qualms with the show when I saw it in December, but the score is truly a gift (especially compared to what passes for musical theatre these days). Since receiving the cast album last week, I've listened to it almost every day. "Invisible," "Model Behavior," and "Island" have all been in my mind since I first saw the show, but I've found myself returning again and again to Patti's first number, "Time Stood Still." It works as both a triumph of pastiche and flawless internal monologue through music--which is the crux of this kind of theatre. Of the four scores nominated, it would get my vote.

William Oser said...

I didn't have the opportunity to see the show so I can't comment vis a vis on stage vs. CD. I love the score, its full of energy, great lyrics and just plain old fashion verve. With that said, I think it would come off far less well if it were not for talent of the sheer magnitude of Sherie Rene Scott, Laura Benanti and Patti Lupone. I worry that even if the stage show had worked better that a broadway run would have to be short and sweet because when it was time to replace these ladies it would be impossible. Ever notice that some not so great shows can work well when wonderfully cast (My Fair Lady is an exception, it is absolutely a superb musical but so often it is impossible to get a cast worthy of it) but these same shows fall completely flat in Community Theater. My ears tell me that the show was perhaps too frantic and frenetic on stage and that the audience might have been worn down with all the chaos. It isn't so bad on the CD except for the song "On the Verge" which doesn't come off well on the CD but probably worked better on stage. Anyhow I am sure that I am going to get a fair amount of pleasure from the CD and Women on the Verge will become a favorite flop show, much as The Grass Harp is (love the score, but it is a bore on stage).

Bill Oser
Talkin' Broadway/West Coast Florida