I saw a resurrection yesterday afternoon.
Four years or so ago, Lincoln Center Theater presented a musical adaptation of the cult-ish Pedro Almodovar film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown on Broadway, where it did not thrive. It got mostly lousy reviews, ran a few weeks, and closed before the end of the scheduled “limited run” (which would have very quickly become unlimited if the show had taken off at the box office). That’s usually the end of the story – Broadway is littered with the corpses of dead and mostly-forgotten musicals, and so is the West End – except that this time the show’s creators – composer/lyricist David Yazbek, librettist Jeffrey Lane, and director Barlett Sher – all apparently felt there was something in the show worth saving. The cast recording – a frenetic, slightly cartoonish listen that isn’t helped in the slightest by the fact that everyone in the show’s (admittedly impressive) cast is forced to perform using a ridiculous cod-Thpanish accent, presumably in case we all forget this thing is set in Madrid – partly reveals why: underneath the silly accents and the overcaffeinated performances and orchestrations, there are three or four very distinguished songs, and a few more that are at least distinctive.
This London production, then, represents a second chance for the show, and everyone involved appears to be going to great pains in the pre-opening publicity (it’s still in previews) to make it clear that this is not – repeat, NOT – the Broadway production, although it retains the same director. This, we are told, is a smaller, more focused version of the show, incorporating significant revisions including a number of new songs. They haven’t quite gone to the trouble of having a pop-up box saying “this version of the show has been HEAVILY REVISED” appear when you click the link on their website to book a ticket, but don’t imagine somebody didn’t consider it. From the list of songs on the cast album, ‘Time Stood Still’, ‘The Microphone’, and ‘Shoes From Heaven’ are gone; in their place are a (very effective) solo for Lucia called ‘It’s Me’ and a beautiful new finale called ‘The View From Here’ (the scene which contained ‘The Microphone’ has been eliminated). There are some internal changes within some numbers that have been retained, particularly in the second act, the order of songs is a little different (‘Island’ comes later in the first act, as Pepa makes the gazpacho), and the aim throughout appears to be to keep the central strands of the narrative – Pepa’s pursuit of Ivan, Lucia’s pursuit of Ivan and Pepa, and Candela’s realisation that her boyfriend is a terrorist – firmly in focus.
Fortunately for everyone involved, the work appears to have paid off. The clips of the Broadway production that Lincoln Center Theater put on youtube suggest a sprawling, garish, frenetic staging that could overpower the more delicate elements of the plot (I’m not going to give a synopsis here – the movie has been out for more than 25 years and is an acknowledged classic, so if you don’t know what it’s about, you can go and google it yourself). Sher’s London staging, by contrast, is studiedly simple. Here, the show is staged on a two-tier unit set, with (mostly) minimal props and furniture for any scene taking place outside Pepa’s apartment. There are no projections, no moving scenery, and the taxi is two chairs and a steering-wheel. If you like your musicals big and spectacular, this is not the show for you. The simpler approach works well with the material, though – the production has a fluidity that isn’t always easy to achieve in a piece which incorporates a lot of relatively short scenes, and the quieter emotional beats underpinning the rather outlandish plot are allowed room to breathe. Parts of the show are very funny indeed, but the resolution is surprisingly touching. It’s not perfect – although I saw a preview, and it’s likely some timing/blocking issues will be fixed in the week left before it opens – but this is a stylish, funny production that makes an excellent case for the show as a chamber musical, and reveals Yazbek’s score to be rather better than you’d guess from the Broadway cast recording, even given that it always contained a few very strong musical numbers. Surprisingly, the new orchestrations – yes, for a smaller band – help; in this production, the score has a strong Spanish flavour, whereas the orchestrations on the Broadway cast album (for a band that, even there, is not particularly large) are redolent of nothing so much as a particularly frenetic Wacky Races cartoon that takes place on the Autopista de Circunvalación.
The attempt to put as much distance as possible between this production and the previous one even extends to the casting. The Broadway production was luxury-cast with a parade of New York’s best musical theatre performers (and Patti LuPone, but you can’t have everything). Despite the over-emphatic orchestrations and the silly accents, the New York cast sang the hell out of Yazbek’s score, sometimes (on the album, at least) at the expense of either the comedy (Brian Stokes Mitchell, a matinee-idol baritone who doesn’t locate the humour in the preening Ivan’s numbers) or the emotional truth of the moment (Sherie Rene Scott delivers a very pretty ‘Mother’s Day’, but there’s no feeling behind it at all, and it’s supposed to be the second act’s emotional anchor) or both (the aforementioned Ms. LuPone, who steamrollers her way through ‘Invisible’ as if the song’s lyrics, and the story they tell, are a mere detail that needn’t concern her). The only completely successful performance is from Laura Benanti as the unstable model Candela (not coincidentally, Ms. Benanti is the only performer in the Broadway cast who completely owns her Spanish accent); everyone else in some way misses the mark.
In London, accordingly, Sher has assembled a very different kind of cast. With very few exceptions, these are actors who sing rather than musical theatre perfomers, led by Tamsin Greig, who has never appeared in a musical before. Ms. Greig is one of the very best comic actresses of her generation; as Pepa, the show’s central role, her job (on top of actually playing the role) is to give the show its emotional centre without being overshadowed by a cast of more colourful supporting characters. Ms. Greig knows how to hold a stage; nobody is ever going to queue up to buy, say, an album of her doing Gershwin standards, but she’s clearly worked very hard indeed on her singing. She reveals an appealingly throaty voice with a surprising range, she’s absolutely in control of it, and her singing gives the character a lovely (and very necessary) vulnerability. It goes without saying that Ms. Greig finds all the laughs and then some, but her “Mother’s Day” is very touching indeed; she does an excellent job throughout of negotiating the space between the show’s emotional core and the more outlandishly farcical plot twists. It’s a difficult role, and she nails it.
There are fine performances from the other leads as well. The standouts? Anna Skellern’s Candela, again, can’t sing like Laura Benanti (though to be fair, that’s a very big club), but she’s both hilarious and believably real, whether she’s yelling into a phone, climbing onto a ledge, or passing out after drinking spiked gazpacho. Jérôme Pradon’s Ivan is an overgrown child who loves women but can’t deal with reality or responsibility; Ivan’s character arc makes better sense here that it does in the film, never mind on the Broadway cast album. Ricardo Afonso’s Taxi Driver kicks the show off with a sizzling “Madrid”, then does a spectacular job of “My Crazy Heart” at the top of the second act, hitting a couple of high notes that induce gasps from the audience. And Haydn Gwynne’s Lucia, Ivan’s vengeful wife who has spent the last 19 years in a mental institution, is more or less perfect. She’s crazy, funny, occasionally achingly sad, and when she strikes a balletic pose on the back of a Vespa in the second act’s climactic chase scene she’s a wonder to behold. She also sings beautifully (and unlike her Broadway counterpart, puts the lyrics across with absolute clarity – no mush-mouthed diction here, thank you very much), and finds every ounce of pathos in “Invisible”, her big Act Two solo. And – for this character, possibly the most important skill of all – she can’t half rock a pair of sunglasses.
Whether or not all this work will turn the show into a hit, though, is another question. It’s good, certainly, but it’s a piece which seems to fall between several stools. The film often seems to be perceived as an out-and-out farce, and it isn’t, and this isn’t either; if you come to this show looking for that kind of comedy, you may not be entirely satisfied. The songs are terrific – it’s Yazbek’s best musical score by a mile – but there isn’t necessarily a big take-home tune, apart from perhaps ‘My Crazy Heart’, which in this production is sung in a key almost nobody could emulate. It’s a simple production staged on a unit set, so you won’t find dazzling visuals here. And while I thought Ms. Greig gave a wonderful performance, it’s not impossible that someone familiar with the Broadway album would find her singing disappointing. It’s also anyone’s guess what the reviews will be when it opens a week from now. Still, the mere fact that Sher and company have taken something that manifestly didn’t work in its first incarnation and transformed it into something that does is a rare and surprising achievement. Most flop musicals – and there are far more flops than hits – sink without trace, and second chances are relatively rare. It may well not have worked at all on Broadway, but this is a show that deserves to be seen.
Oh yes, and a quick note to the two “ladies” in the row behind me who slurped from takeout cartons of soup (not gazpacho) throughout the first ten minutes of the show: please do us all a favour, and stay home until you’ve learned how to behave in a theatre. We’d all paid to listen to the cast, not the sound of the pair of you eating like pigs. Thanks.