In the program notes for the new London production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: The Musical, composer-lyricist David Yazbek explains that the show has “changed tremendously” since it was first staged in a truncated run on Broadway in 2010. “If London is our production, New York was a very expensive out-of-town try-out,” he says. “This is the best possible version.”
Yazbek surely means to sound confident about the refinements, but after seeing the new version one can’t help but detect a note of defeatism there. It may be the best possible version, but there’s still something fundamentally misbegotten about this only fitfully entertaining production. Sure, Jeffrey Lane‘s book smooths down the rough story edges from Pedro Almodovar‘s beloved 1988 film (which, if you watch it again, are pretty damn rough in places). But even with this stripped-down reboot, director Bartlett Sher and the company haven’t found a way to match the movie’s brio, fluidity or broad emotional palette, despite the fact that everyone onstage seems to be in constant, fidgety motion.
Given the show’s underwhelming songs, bar one or two show-stoppers, and peculiar casting, viewers without any sentimental attachment to the original film — let alone the Broadway version or Jean Cocteau‘s play The Human Voice, which was the film’s inspiration — will be left wondering what all the fuss was about.
In what would seem on paper to be a clever bit of meta-casting, Tamsin Greig (Episodes) has been given the lead role of Pepa, an essentially comic actress known particularly for her voiceover work and commercials. Pepa’s despair over the dissolution of her relationship with lover Ivan (Jerome Pradon) is what sets the story’s wheels in motion, especially when she learns he’s leaving her for another woman. However, while there’s no gainsaying Greig’s comic timing, her brittle affect and very English manner seem all wrong for this hot-blooded Madrilena.
It doesn’t help that Greig is so deeply in the shadow of Carmen Maura, whose gorgeous, nuanced performance is the rock on which the film is built. More damaging is the fact that Greig’s singing voice is merely adequate; it’s stronger in the low notes but lacks power in the heights, a problem the new production works around by often bringing on more robust voices from the ensemble to punch up her numbers.
Luckily, Haydn Gwynne is on hand as Lucia, Pepa’s nemesis, the jilted wife Ivan left years earlier for Pepa, who went even more nuts with grief and is still a good few ingredients short of the full gazpacho. Magnificently regal even in her battiest moments, Gwynne makes the part her own, which is no mean feat given it was a role taken by Patti LuPone, no less, on Broadway and originated by the great Julieta Serrano on film.
If this stage version can’t pull off the same comic legerdemain with windblown wigs that made Serrano’s moments in the climax so iconic, Gwynne’s voice is its own special effect. That’s especially so in her big number “Invisible,” a plaintive ode to lost youth. It’s one of the few songs in the show that authentically reveals character and hits the requisite emotional high notes.
Only Anna Skellern‘s Candela, Pepa’s ditzy model friend (a role that earned Laura Benanti a Tony nomination on Broadway), and Ricardo Afonso as the taxi driver/chorus figure get tunes that approach the same standard. Both actors are standouts in a more than competent supporting cast who only serve to show up Greig’s weakness in the lead. Although Portuguese in origin rather than Spanish, Afonso’s singing style adds a properly Latin quality to the proceedings that feels notably absent elsewhere given the cast’s unabashedly English accents.
Indeed, 1980s Madrid, with its architecture, its energy, and its newfound audacity after years of Fascist oppression, was a significant part of the film’s original charm, and this stage production, however much Sher and Co. have tinkered with the material for the London version, never finds a way of filling that gap. Even designer Anthony Ward‘s set dressing seems noticeably off-period, the bold colors only a vague approximation of the supersaturated hues of the time, the furniture shapes more Ikea than Iberia.
Worst of all, as a farce it fails to ignite, perhaps because ultimately the plot itself is too intrinsically thin, revolving around a gag where everyone passes out from a surfeit of Valium-spiked gazpacho and a few contrived comings and goings.
Looking back, the flaws are inherent in the source material, but on film Almodovar and his cast found ways of enriching the brew by playfully toying with TV, film and theatrical conventions, blended with melodramatic spices that are unconvincing here. Nevertheless, the Spanish auteur strode onstage beaming his approval during the opening-night curtain call, and appears to have given this spin-off his full blessing.
Cast: Tamsin Greig, Haydn Gwynne, Anna Skellern, Willemijn Verkaik, Ricardo Afonso, Jerome Pradon, Seline Hizli, Haydn Oakley, Marianne Benedict, Holly James, Michael Matus, Rebecca McKinnis
Director: Bartlett Sher
Book: Jeffrey Lane, based on the film by Pedro Almodovar
Music & Lyrics: David Yazbek
Set designer: Anthony Ward
Costume designer: Caitlin Ward
Lighting designer: Peter Mumford
Sound designer: Paul Groothuis, Tom Marshall
Musical director: Greg Arrowsmith
Orchestrations: Simon Hale
Choreographer: Ellen Kane
Presented by Howard Panter, Evanna White, Patrick Gracey for Ambassador Theatre Group, Roy Furman, Peter Ivany, Richard O’Brien, The Dodgers, Scott Delman, Scott & Brian Zeilinger, Aubrey Dan