'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown': Theater Review

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - Play Still - 2010
Courtesy of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Some of Broadway's finest performers and top-tier craftsmen take a valiant stab, but they can't give this misconceived musicalization of the 1988 Pedro Almodovar film a life of its own.

Take a delectable screen property, add a masterful director, gifted designers and a formidable assembly of stage talent, and what do you get? Sadly, a flavorless gazpacho.

Francisco Franco had been dead more than 10 years and his oppressive regime long since replaced by democracy when Pedro Almodovar made Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But the giddy screwball comedy, with its eye-popping visuals and idiosyncratic characters, was like a belated coming-out party for a newly liberated Spain. That would seem to make it ideal grist for the musical mill, or so composer David Yazbek and book writer Jeffrey Lane clearly thought.

The film's high-agita narrative was offset by its celebration of the Spanish capital. That aspect is recaptured in "Madrid," the opening number of Lincoln Center Theater's splashy production, sung by the ebullient Danny Burstein as a bleach-blond taxi driver lifted directly from the film. But it quickly becomes apparent that slavish adherence to the source material was a mistake.

A story that might have worked as a door-slamming stage farce ends up having no reason to sing. Musicals generally require sweeping sentiments, and while Almodovar's Women on the Verge has charm to burn, it lacks the emotional depth of the director's later, richer movies, or even the molten melodrama of earlier works like Law of Desire.

As a musical, it has no buoyancy, with comedic plot lines deflating in translation and underdeveloped characters scurrying about -- often on conveyer belts -- without engendering much affection. If the intent was to explore the characters' inner lives through song, then Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), whose work is stronger on pop than poignancy, might be the wrong composer-lyricist.

Strains of tango, mambo and bossa nova weave sinuously through the tuneful score. But the intimate songs rarely deepen our knowledge of the characters, and the ensemble numbers are chaotic. They neither drive the action nor flow organically from it.

Sherie Rene Scott has a tough assignment trying to make us care about Pepa, the actress played by Carmen Maura in the film. The plot chronicles her 48-hour quest to contact Ivan (Brian Stokes Mitchell), the lover dumping her for another woman. But there's no song to shed light on who Pepa is, so despite Scott's natural appeal, there's no investment in this one-dimensional character's calvary of missed calls and thwarted encounters.

The performer who fares best is Laura Benanti. Playing Pepa's friend Candela, a ditz unwittingly entangled with a Shiite terrorist, she gets a zesty comic showcase in "Model Behavior."

As Ivan's unhinged wife, Benanti's former Gypsy castmate Patti LuPone also has her moments, both funny and melancholy. The theme of women giving their hearts too freely to undeserving men has more traction via these secondary characters than through Pepa.

Among the cast's other names, Mitchell is in lustrous voice but stuck in a generic Don Juan role, and American Idol Season 1 runner-up Justin Guarini makes a promising Broadway debut in an equally thankless part.

Dramatic integrity has been director Bartlett Sher's strong point, notably in the recent South Pacific revival. But he labors here to whip up manic energy, and he's at sea trying to find a heart or even a steady comic rhythm in Lane's feeble book.

The production feels effortful, down to the busy design work of Sher's regular collaborators, suggesting that pop art might not be their natural idiom. And stylish as they are in channeling the retro-chic graphics and Mondrian-like color grids of Almodovar's films, Sven Ortel's projections are too literal.

The show closes with a pretty song about connection, "Talk to Me," that's little more than a fragment, begun by the underused Mary Beth Peil as Pepa's concierge before being taken up by Scott. It's a wispy throwaway ending, but it has a welcome delicacy. If only there were more moments in which the writers reinterpret rather than regurgitate the movie.

Venue: Belasco Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Sherie Rene Scott, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Patti LuPone, Danny Burstein, Laura Benanti, Justin Guarini, Nikka Graff Lanzarone, de'Adre Aziza, Mary Beth Peil, Jennifer Sanchez, Murphy Guyer, Charlie Sutton, Nina Lafarga, Sean McCourt, Luis Salgado, Alma Cuervo, Julio Agustin
Music-lyrics: David Yazbek
Director: Bartlett Sher
Book: Jeffrey Lane
Choreographer: Christopher Gattelli
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Projection designer: Sven Ortel
Music director: Jim Abbott
Orchestrations: Simon Hale
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater, in association with Bob Boyett