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Theater review: 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown' at the Belasco Theatre

November 4, 2010 |  5:00 pm

Women on the verge 1 
NEW YORK -- Musicals sprung from movies are usually a recipe for freeze-dried nostalgia served over songs. But when I heard that “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” Pedro Almodóvar's sparkling international breakthrough film from 1988 about romantic resiliency, was getting a Broadway makeover, my heart fluttered with hope that this might be one of those rare instances when the screen catapults the stage to giddy new heights.

Silly boy.
This new musical adaptation of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” which opened Thursday in a Lincoln Center Theater production at the Belasco Theatre, has many things in its favor. Chief among them is a glittering constellation of theatrical divas, featuring the one and only Patti LuPone as a kind of deranged den mother. But the show is hampered by a faltering score by David Yazbek (“The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) and a crucial bit of miscasting. Pepa, the protagonist thrown into a tailspin after her man cuts her loose, is played here by Sherie Rene Scott, a charming musical theater star but one with about as much Mediterranean earthiness as Barbara Bush or Paris Hilton.

Women on the verge 2 What could have been a tangy European “Hairspray” — an offbeat film commercialized into a Broadway attraction while retaining just enough of the original sensibility to make it seem hip and daring — turns out to be a missed opportunity. Yet it’s a missed opportunity that I’m nonetheless glad I didn’t miss. I was aware all along of watching something that wasn’t working, but there were so many lively distractions, at least until the draggy second act, that I found sufficient delight to keep me from muttering expletives of disappointment. 

The opening number, “Madrid,” sets the scene and the musical’s tentative tone. Danny Burstein plays the friendly dyed-blond taxi driver who magically appears whenever Pepa desperately needs a lift, and he’s the one charged with introducing us to the world of this Spanish capital, circa 1987.  

But Burstein's performance is so wan at the outset that had I not seen his fearlessly comic Luther Billis in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of “South Pacific,” I might have blamed the singer rather than the song. But with lyrics like these — “Madrid is my mama/Give me the nipple, Every day I’m gonna taste it./The tears and the drama/Ten tons of mama-milk and not a drop is wasted” — even a talent as overpowering as Zero Mostel’s might have shriveled up onstage.

Bartlett Sher’s colorful kaleidoscopic direction breathlessly tries to compensate for the deficiencies of the musical. And the visual wit of his staging is perhaps the closest thing on hand to Almodóvar’s singular whimsy. But all the frenetic activity — with Sven Ortel’s projections lending Michael Yeargan’s fast-moving sets the hyperactive feeling of a fashion video — can’t conceal the gaping flaws of the show any more than decorative icing can improve a cake made without enough baking soda or eggs. 

The screenplay’s steady farcical drive would seem to be ideally suited to the theater. (The movie has a stagey quality all its own, with Pepa’s modest penthouse serving as the locus for much of the action.) Book writer Jeffrey Lane gets a lot of mileage out of the dizzying situation of passionate women converging in brokenhearted turmoil, but the economy of the film is lost, and a tale that can happily sustain interest for 90 minutes is swollen into a 2½-hour slog.

Carmen Maura’s Pepa is the soul of the movie, a middle-aged woman with sexual spark, who’s aging gracefully in the way that only seems to happen in foreign films. Laid low by a deserting lover, the character prepares a Valium-stuffed batch of gazpacho, but her life force is too great to allow any real harm to come from her brew. Maura’s ability to be both grounded and flighty, to coexist in the realms of realism and farce, embodies the essence of Almodóvar’s vision.

Unfortunately, this can't be said of Scott, who seems lost and deflated by the production’s feverish swirl. This isn’t the same confident performer who was like a glorious moonbeam in “Everyday Rapture,” her semi-autobiographical musical about a girl from the religious heartland who gets the sacrilegious showbiz itch. The overriding impression here is of an actress who has been repeatedly told what not to do and who has subsequently become too timid to try anything.

Even Scott’s versatile singing languishes. But chalk that problem up to Yazbek, whose busy, complicated music drowns out its female voice. It takes the booming baritone of Brian Stokes Mitchell, who plays Pepa’s philandering narcissist, Ivan, to break through the hubbub.
Not that LuPone, marching around in an outré getup that’s like Harry Potter couture, doesn’t have her moments in her two big numbers. But she’s so pungent in her comic delivery as Lucia, Ivan’s crazy ex-wife out for revenge, and so miraculously melodious in her vocal interpretation that it’s hard not to wish that “Time Stood Still” and “Invisible” were better songs.

Laura Benanti, LuPone’s costar in the last Broadway revival of “Gypsy,” almost steals the show as Candela, the model who has fallen into bed with a terrorist and has interrupted Pepa’s crisis with one of her own. Watching her try to explain her troubles as she simultaneously creates new ones by flirting with Carlos (a captivating Justin Guarini), Lucia’s sweet-natured son, is one of the most uplifting bits of clowning I’ve seen since Katie Finneran hijacked “Promises, Promises” in her inebriated barroom scene.
Generally speaking, the rest of the supporting cast is better than the material. de’Adre Aziza isn’t required to do much more than appear tough as Paulina, Lucia’s feminist lawyer who becomes subjected to Ivan’s amorous ambush. At least Mary Beth Peil is given a meaty musical moment to redeem her one-joke routine as Pepa’s pious concierge. But all the women deserve better. 
The tempo slackens in the second half, just when it should be accelerating to maximum velocity.  And not even Sher, who has been on a Lincoln Center Theater hot streak in recent years with “South Pacific,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Awake and Sing!” and “The Light in the Piazza,” can rescue this derailed musical with his reliable legerdemain.
The joy of Almodóvar’s film is the profound simplicity of its whirligig emotional truth. Sadly, that quality has been lost in the Broadway shuffle.

-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

Photos: Top: Sherie Rene Scott and Danny Burstein. Bottom: Patti LuPone and de'Adre Aziza. Credit: Paul Kolnik