Thursday, July 16, 2009

Too Fluffy

Music & lyrics by David Kirshenbaum
Book by Jack Heifner, based on his play
Musical staging by Dan Knechtges
Directed by Judith Ivey
Starring Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles, Anneliese van der Pol

Performances from July 2 to August 9, 2009
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street

Kennedy, Stiles and van der Pol in Vanities
(photo: Joan Marcus)
It's subtraction by addition for the new musical Vanities, based on Jack Heifner’s paper-thin but amusing play—which debuted Off-Broadway in 1976 and ran for four years—about three young women who are close friends in high school and in college, only to drift irrevocably apart afterwards.

The original play comprised three scenes showing the trio first as seniors in high school, then as sorority sisters in college, and finally several years later in New York City as they settle into marriages or careers, where they discover how far apart they’ve become. For this amiably aimless new musicalization, playwright-turned-book writer Heifner has written a fourth scene—in essence a new ending, which makes the original (and better) ending redundant—that brings the three women together 15 years later at a funeral, as they discover that maybe they aren't that far apart after all. Ain’t friendship wonderful?

The characters (practical Kathy, ditzy Joanne and vixen Mary) are caricatured to the nth degree, but Heifner writes engagingly funny dialogue and we eventually sympathize with these sparring but loving friends. The musical Vanities, however, lessens whatever dramatic and comedic impact the material has, primarily because David Kirshenbaum’s music and lyrics are so...well, so-so.

Kirshenbaum's songs consist of rah-rah numbers in which the three gals belt their hearts out while doing wanly choreographed moves courtesy of Dan Knechtges, and introspective solo turns that are glimpses into fairly empty souls. The major flaw is that none of the tunes is memorable, either lyrically or melodically: indeed, the recycled musical refrains make the 95-minute show one endlessly reprised song.

The lyrics are particularly weak: the musical opens with a "One hope/steep slope" rhyme, and it's consistently easy to correctly guess the rhyme scheme of subsequent songs, which have an unmistakable whiff of the rhyming dictionary about them. And since the music provides no additional insights into who are, after all, shallow nonentities to begin with, this version of Vanities drags out Heifner's one-note play beyond its real but modest virtues.

Second Stage's first-rate production begins with Judith Ivey's empathetic direction, which allows the three talented actresses—Lauren Kennedy (Mary), Sarah Stiles (Joan), Anneliese van der Pol (Kathy)—to bring these amusingly fluffy women to impressive life. It plays out on Anna Louizos' cleverly-constructed set, which consists mainly of three large armoires that, like magicians' compartments with seemingly endless items inside them, are variously transformed into school lockers, dorm-room dressers and vanities, or closets containing their costumes for each scene.

All in all, the blandly entertaining Vanities makes one yearn for a revivial of Heifner's original play, sans Kirshenbaum's songs and the playwright's superfluous final scene.

originally posted on

No comments: