Thursday, May 26, 2011

CD REVIEW: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

One of my biggest disappointments from last season was the musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  But it wasn't a disappointment for me for all of the reasons you are probably thinking.

I was privileged, yes privileged, to see the second preview of the show.  It was the thrill of this theatre fan's life to see some of the most revered talents on Broadway "in process."  Sure the show wasn't ready.  As I said way back when I saw it, it needed a fast opening number, it needed clarity, and it needed a consistently zany pace.  One of the biggest problems with it is that it relied too heavily on the audience understand European sensibility and the Latin style of telenovelas.  The closest thing we have here is soap operas which wouldn't know fast pacing if their lives depended on it.  And in those first previews, the translation of film style staging - vignettes sliding by, projections of colors moving every which way during scene changes, and even creating close ups and montages - was creaky at best.  But, and here is where I diverge from the common consensus of the audiences and critics, I could still see through all the clutter what was going to be.  And what it was going to be was something smart, sexy and as non-Broadway a sensibility as one can get.

I had tickets to revisit the show just before its scheduled limited engagement was over.  Unfortunately, the show closed early, and I never got to see what I was sure was a terrific musical when all was said and done.  Yet another show, that pushes boundaries and asks its audience to participate by thinking and feeling outside the box, failed despite the constant outcry from theatregoers for just that sort of thing.  And so you can see why it ended up being a disappointment.

But the great news is that Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the Broadway musical version, will live on forever thanks to Ghostlight Records, which went ahead with a cast recording despite the show's untimely demise.

Grade: A+

Title: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Artist: Original Broadway Cast Recording
Label: Ghostlight Records
Number: 8-4447
Format: Single CD
Case: Single Jewel Case
Booklet: Full color production photos; complete lyrics; essays by Pedro Almodovar and Frank Rich

As I did not formally review the show, I will offer my comments in a slightly different format than usual.  I caveat everything I say below with this understanding: I did not see the final product, but based on the differences between what I saw and what is preserved on this recording tells me that nearly everything I had hoped they would do, they did.

The Booklet:
This one is of high quality, with a full color rendition of the show's manic logo, and full color throughout.  Included is a sweet essay from Pedro Almodovar, upon whose film the show was based.  As you might expect he offers nothing but praise for the creative team and cast.  More surprising, and more appreciated by this listener at least, is a very telling essay by Frank Rich, former New York Times reviewer who could cut your career to shreds with some scathing reviews.  The difference between him and his predecessors is that his criticism was agenda-free and applied equally no matter if you were a new Broadway talent or a 10 time Tony winner.  And generally, after the hurt and anger subsided, you could at least understand his point of view, even if you couldn't fully agree with it.  Pithy, bitchy sound bites were not his thing.  And the essay he includes here is very telling of the final product.  While it is clear that he found the show to be imperfect, he finds much of it ahead of its time, and goes so far as to say that Women on the Verge will join the ranks of many a show that critics and audiences failed to embrace at first, but have/will become beloved. 

I also love that the booklet contains great color production photos as well as the super snazzy cast photo that was outside the Belasco Theatre.  And I love the complete synopsis as well as lyrics (including some stage directions), which really help to illuminate the complete work.

The Quality of Sound:
A big fan of both of David Yazbek's previous Broadway scores, The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it is wonderful that this gem has been recorded.  All three scores are from projects where films have been turned into musicals, and like the first two, Yazbek has captured not only a Broadway sensibility in his music and lyrics, but the rhythms and sentiments of the particular piece.  Time and again, he has brought to vivid life the vibrancy and urgency of Latin music and culture.

Simon Hale's (along with additional work from Jim Abbott and David Yazbek) orchestrations are lush and full.  The background under the main tune is consistently rich with complicated patterns of percussion and individual instrumentation that mirror the craziness of what is going on, whether it is zany physical action or the crazed musings of women ready to kill for their lovers, kill their lovers or even themselves, so desperate a frenzy these ladies are in.  Jim Abbott's musical direction allows that same depth in the vocals as well.  How wonderful, for example, to hear Patti LuPone work her same magic in solo numbers AND as a part of the ensemble!

The Quality of Performance:
As one might expect from a group of actors with the level of pedigree that that this company has, the performance quality on this recording is extraordinary, from the supporting vocals of the ensemble to the leads and the supporting cast.  No one is a star here, and yet everyone is giving a star turn on this album.

One wishes there were a bit more dialogue and more material for both Justin Guarini and Nikka Graff Lanzarone, both of whom delivered the goods in their Broadway debuts.  But really, other than that, this cast recording captures great performances and some really superb songs.  I find myself really liking almost 100% of the score after several listenings.  Even upon my first listen, I liked nearly the entire thing, and really loved several songs right off the bat.  I have learned over the years not to immediately judge a new score until I have listened to it many many times, allowing it to become almost background music in my mind.  It is at that point that different things strike my ears and brain at different times.  With this score, I really have learned to appreciate the imagery, sensuality and bold sexuality of the lyrics.  And I have really come to admire that Yazbek (and book writer Jeffrey Lane) allowed the stage version to rely less on shtick and physical comedy throughout and allowing the frenzy of these women to show up in their thoughts and emotions.  One probably associates being "on the verge' with the hilarity and physicality of Laura Benanti's likely Tony turn, "Model Behavior," which even on just the recording sounds like a mad dash all around the stage.  But there is also the more emotional breakdown allowed by Patti LuPone's equally frantic but physically subdued "Time Stood Still" and most definitely in a showcase of understatement, "Invisible."  Then, too, is the lashing out from scorn by Sherie Renee Scott in "Lovesick," which succinctly (and devilishly) tells us that sexually, women can think with their crotches just like men do.  And later, her disappointment and anguish over what was supposed to be is revealed in the complex "Island."  These are women who think with their hearts and bodies first, and when their minds catch up, go right to the brink.  Song after song tells us how a woman, who is otherwise smart and fully self-realized, can fall so fast and easily for a known Lothario, a nebbish geek living under his mother's thumb and in his father's shadow, and even a known terrorist.

And those men are mostly in the periphery of the show, as they should be, but they are not just plot points, but rather the catalysts for the whole show.  Brian Stokes Mitchell, as Ivan, male slut, uh, Casanova, makes the sensuality seem so easy in "Lie to Me," and radiates charm right through your ear buds in "Microphone," supported in that number by his learning-the-ropes son, played by Justin Guarini.  And if Ivan's philosophy and magnetism weren't already apparent, he lays it all out for you in "Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today.

The ending number, "Shoes from Heaven," as well as the bonus track, the original opening number (which did not work dramatically) "My Crazy Heart," are beautiful, complex numbers which give the show emotional depth and some gorgeous vocals to boot.

I'm not going to pretend, though, that the spicy songs with their urgent beat and tricky word play don't appeal to me the most.  They do.  I have the overture, "Madrid Is My Mama," the vastly superior opening number, which used to open act two, "Model Behavior," "On the Verge," and "Tangled" programmed to play and repeat in my car.  They are nothing less than exhilarating!

Yes, not seeing the final production will always nag at me.  But I am so grateful that I got to see it at all.  Women on the Verge, I hope, is really on the verge of big things!

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