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November 5, 2010

TT: Reason to be nervous

Today my entire Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted to the premiere of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which stars Sherie Rene Scott, Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti, and Brian Stokes Mitchell and which opened cold on Broadway last night without an out-of-town tryout. Too bad--it's no good. Here's an excerpt.

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Recipe for a commodity musical: (1) Take an ultra-familiar piece of source material, preferably a hit movie. (2) Adapt it for the stage in the most literal and obvious way imaginable, adding only extra jokes. (3) Stir in a dozen or so innocuous songs that won't divert the audience's attention from how closely the stage version resembles its source. If you're lucky, you get "The Addams Family"; if not, "9 to 5." Either way, you get the kind of been-there-seen-that musical that has been blighting Broadway for the past decade and more.

WOTVVV.jpegSo what does this formula have to do with "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," Lincoln Center Theater's big-budget musical version of Pedro Almodovár's 1988 screen comedy about three women whom love has driven to the brink of madness? The answer is that Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek, last seen on the Great White Way as the creators of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," have now sought to commoditize not an off-the-rack Hollywood comedy but one of the most individual and significant Spanish-language films of the postwar era. It's as if they'd tried to turn "Shoot the Piano Player" or "Wings of Desire" into a Big Mac musical--and the results, not at all surprisingly, are a flavorless mess....

For all its seeming lunacy, "Women on the Verge" is in fact a wholly serious comedy about a macho culture that encourages men to be faithless to the women who love them. The fact that Mr. Almodovár is gay made it easier for him to portray that culture with a sharp-eyed detachment that did nothing to diminish his sympathy for his female characters. That's part of what makes "Women on the Verge" more than a dizzy sex comedy: You always know whose side it's on.

To turn so fully realized a work of cinematic art into an equally successful musical demands that it be subjected to a complete and thoroughgoing imaginative transformation. Otherwise, the new version will seem superfluous--which is what's wrong with the stage version of "Women on the Verge." Instead of breaking new creative ground, Mr. Lane's book tracks Mr. Almodovár's setting and plot slavishly, salting his script with unfunny one- and two-liners that serve only to dilute the crisp, elliptical dialogue of the screenplay. As for Mr. Yazbek's songs, they're as forgettable as Muzak in a noisy restaurant...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted November 5, 2010 12:00 AM

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