Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles, Anneliese van der Pol
It’s popular to dismiss much of the lighter fare on New York stages.
The new musical version of Vanities, adapted by Jack Heifner from his popular play by the same name, will likely fall prey to critics’ poison pen mostly because it fails to do much more than entertain.
It’s a phenomenon not uncommon in the critical press, who sometimes (not always) seem to prefer an evening of austerely discomfiting pretension to one of actual enjoyment.
9 to 5, which in my book was heads and tails above at least two of the musicals that shut it out of the best musical category at the Tonys this year, was a fizzy, fun show with some truly wonderful musical numbers.
Perhaps it’s a bit of escapist fluff, but it’s well-constructed, and even if it’s a little too much like the the movie that serves as its basis, it nevertheless emanates a sense of feminist pride that ought to genuinely inspire a gentle leap of the heart in a good number of audience members. Critics hacked it to bits; I loved it.Like 9 to 5 and another frothy throwback, The Marvelous Wonderettes, which I recently caught up with off-Broadway and which was advantageously cross-promoted in the form of flyers in the Playbills for Vanities, a trio of gal pals dominates the plot of Jack Heifner’s musical adaptation of his popular play, which features a score by relative newcomer David Kirshenbaum.
Played by Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles, and Anneliese van der Pol, it’s difficult not to like Mary, Joanne, and Kathy, the central figures of the show, whose limited concerns center around being the most popular cheerleaders in high school and then, in college, sorority girls. Finally, they come to an impasse as they realize life is more than popularity.
In the second half of the show, the characters we came to know and love as happy-go-luck valley girl types are suddenly more complicated. Like the gals in 9 to 5, they’re looking for answers in a world that seems difficult to navigate. While Joanne settles into life as a wife, her highest aspiration, Mary takes the absolute opposite route, opening an erotic art gallery that sells neon pricks to wealthy clientle. Eventually the ladies come to love and accept one another despite their differences. It feels a little unearned that a good deal of the reconciliation involved happens off-stage, but there’s still enough drama throughout to pull a willing audience through the evening’s low points.
Overall, the premise for the show is schmaltzy, and there aren’t many unfamiliar situations for the creative team to mine in coming up with an original-feeling musical. Director Judith Ivey gives us a by-the-books, well-oiled production of a solidly-written, fun, and essentially insubstantial musical that wholly entertains and allows itself to be almost completely forgotten afterwards.
In the theatre, I absolutely loved David Kirshenbaum’s pastiche score, which borrows from the 50s and 60s in telling the stories of these women’s lives. There are some catchy songs – the high school teenybopperish I Can’t Imagine, the anthemic Fly Into The Future (which Lauren Kennedy knocks out of the park), and a number of other slaphappy one-off numbers that come across well over the course of the evening. Not all of the tunes are memorable, but the evening as a whole feels like a satisfyingly minty piece of hard candy. It’s savored; then it dissolves. But who can really knock it? It tasted damn good before it was done.