17 December 2010


It's time to clear something up. People have been saying a lot of things about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the new Broadway musical based on the Almodóvar film. They say that it's all ADD and call it a "sad casualty of its own wandering mind," they say "the musical mostly feels born of indecision and even boredom," they call it lifeless and preoccupied, and on and on. Oh, that was all in one review? Well, so, you see.

Here's the thing: The reviewers are not wrong. I think Women on the Verge is best described as a hot mess. It is all over the place - stairs that lead nowhere appear out of nowhere, accents that belong to nowhere appear and disappear in moments, songs come and go before you realize they began. There is an epic fire, lots of Valium, and at least seventeen impossible-to-follow plotlines.

BUT. I would recommend everyone go see Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. No, not because of schadenfreude, but because I think it's an experience that everyone needs in his or her life. There are so many reasons why this is the case. I will share but a few.
  1. Laura Benanti gives a performance that will win a Tony if there is any justice in the world. She is absolutely hilarious before she ever opens her mouth. You desperately want her in every scene. And while she only gets one song (because, well, of course that's how it would be), she makes so much of this medium-ish part that you keep temporarily forgetting that she isn't the reason you came to see the show. Which she obviously will be for every show you see in the future.
  2. Have you ever heard Brian Stokes Mitchell sing live? If yes, then you already know why this is a reason. If no, then you haven't heard music until you've heard it come out of his mouth. I remember very few songs or riffs from Women, but one of them is Brian Stokes Mitchell basically teaching his son (a remarkably good Justin Guarini) that it doesn't matter what you say to a woman as long as you say it in a certain way. The idea - and, spoiler! the song - is based on the premise that even "blah blah blah" can sound magical to a woman if you make it so. Putting aside the obvious male chauvinism for just a moment, there's a reason that only Brian Stokes Mitchell could make this plausible. His voice is a dream and he is a must-see.
  3. Incredible scenery. It is colorful and plentiful and flies everywhere, all the time. You may be overwhelmed but you will never be bored. 
  4. If you, like me, have a mental Broadway bucket list, it likely includes the likes of, oh, say Patti LuPone, Sheri Rene Scott, Laura Benanti, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Danny Burstein, and more. This show gives you all of them at once in a convenient, if confusing, two-and-half-hour block. And while these may not be any of their best roles, the energy, charisma, and talent - however misplaced in this show - radiating from the stage at the Belasco is still quite powerful.
Okay, so those are the reasons that are easy to classify: cast and creative. But there is something else. The best thing about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is that once you have seen it, you're pretty sure you saw something awful, but there is also a nagging feeling suggesting that you may have just seen something amazing. You think, "Gosh, that was horrendous ... and yet potentially a masterful exercise in camp." You leave the theater, look at your (very, very game) theater-going partner and break into hysterics, trying desperately to catch your breath as you trade, "But the worst was ..." and, "Yes, but you're forgetting how bad ..." as you head into the comparatively dark hollow of 44th Street. But then, as the laughter dies down, you turn and face each other and give one another that look, the one that says, "And yet ..."

And as you walk away, boarding the subway home only to sit opposite several couples who saw the show and are now absolutely trashing it for the entire car to hear, your friend says, "Are you there, Pepa?" and you rapidly tiptoe √° la Candela over to a bench in the corner of the train, where the voices of all the others recede and you're left to quietly discuss why you never would have traded seeing that show for any other.