nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
July 25, 2009
Vanities, A New Musical, is almost as good as a day at the beach. I say almost, because its book, written by playwright Jack Heifner, delivers a rather predictable scenario, although the individual characters become more interesting as the performance goes on. Still, the production delivers pop and fizz due to an excellent cast, spot-on direction, the lively music, and lyrics that, while not brainy, are well-thought-out.
Vanities follows three women—Mary, Joanne, and Kathy—best friends and at the peak of their game in high school during the '60s—through a 30 year journey. They begin as popular high school cheerleaders, move on to college where their personalities develop and their dreams diverge, and then split after graduating—a split that seems not only natural but irreparable. Mary is wild, with an independent streak. Joanne is prim and unworldly, and her ultimate goal is marriage to and children with her high school sweetheart. Kathy, captain of the cheerleading squad, is organized and always in control. The one thing these three women have in common is their history. It proves to be a strong and credible bond.
Credit Judith Ivey with impeccable direction and Dan Knechtges with genuine and artful musical staging. Together, they have created a smooth, seamless grace to the production as a whole. Changes in sets and costumes, even the movement of the three women, seem to occur as a single, fluid motion. We first see the women as middle-aged, and they transform themselves within minutes, and before our eyes, into teenage cheerleaders and back to 1963. The talented cast does this effortlessly, partly because the necessary sets—moveable vanities designed ingeniously by Anna Louizos—come to them, with all the props they need within easy reach. That is not to take anything away from the finesse and effortlessness with which the actors don their togs.
The first scene is peppy and visually delightful. It also proves to be somewhat banal. What can be said about three teenage cheerleaders? They are pretty, they are popular, they rule the roost, have all the boyfriends, and they love it. It basically sets the stage for what's to come and so we wait. David Kirshenbaum's music and lyrics set the tone for the tumultuous '60s with "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing," a high-spirited tune sung by Joanne, the character whose level of curiosity ranks 0 on a scale from 1 to ten. Sarah Stiles aptly packs this woman with exuberance, and gradually, as the journey progresses, adds characteristics that prevent Joanne from being anything but a small town wife. As she says to her friends before graduating college, "...cheerleaders, then sorority girls—we've run the gamut!"
Lauren Kennedy in the role of Mary brings psychological life to the musical when she sings "Fly into the Future." The song shows all is not as rosy as it seems. Mary longs for freedom and independence, to break loose from small town Texas, an alcoholic mother, and the smothering limitations of her friends. Kennedy imbues Mary with sophistication, style, arrogance, and amorality. She pumps punch into the show with her character's personal perspective.
Kathy, played by Anneliese van der Pol, is not quite sure what she wants. Her identity, previously defined by her control over the cheerleading squad and her clip board of "to-do" lists, seems lost in a very big universe. Van der Pol instills Kathy with vulnerability and tentativeness, a soberness that comes from a close look at frivolity and not being pleased at the results.
Lines are crossed, feelings hurt, and the friends split. However, late in life, each finds herself stuck at a crossroad, and it is here that the characters reach out to one another, hostilities forgiven and differences securely in place. And, there is acceptance. There is no friend like an old friend, especially when facing middle age.
Joseph G. Aulisi has designed distinctive costumes that conjure up the time and place of each of the four scenes. I recognized a pair of favorite trousers from the late '70s I had long forgotten. Lighting by Paul Miller and sound by Tony Meola and Zach Williamson contribute to the overall agility of the production. Musical director and keyboardist Bryan Perri ably conducts the musicians. The other musicians are: Randy Cohen, organ; Peter Calo, guitar; Michael Pearce, bass; Joseph Mowatt, drums/percussion; Bryan Crook and Scott Kreitzer, reeds; and Barry Danielian, trumpet.
Vanities, A New Musical, produced by Second Stage Theatre, delivers a professional show that is upbeat and enjoyable if fairly familiar. Kennedy, Stiles, and van der Pol are terrific.