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A CurtainUp Review
Vanities, A New Musical

Can you believe it? We're twenty-eight. Soon we're going to be. . .twenty-nine, then thirty. Oh, how I'd like to be silly and laugh and act dopey. I can't stand having to be grown up and mature .— Joanne.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It almost doesn't matter that Vanities, A New Musical is an egregiously simplistic, determinedly sentimental rehashing of Jack Heifner's 1976 play Vanities. It also doesn't matter that the score (music and lyrics) by David Kirshenbaum (Summer '42) is discouragingly unexceptional. And why are none of the musicals numbers listed in the playbill? Nevertheless, what really matters is that you are suddenly hooked on a three-character musical about three life-long friends over three decades because of one stand-out performance: Sarah Stiles, as Joanne.

Stiles originated the role of Joanne in both the Theatre Works Palo Alto and Pasadena Playhouse productions, and it is the show's good fortune she is in it for its New York run. Forgive me for gushing, but she gives the kind of dynamic, full throttle musical-comedy-styled performance that hasn't been seen since the heydays of Judy Holiday and Nancy Walker. Stiles is, in fact, as close to being a Walker-double as possible, her diminutive size, endearingly expressive face, powerhouse personality, superior comedic delivery are consolidated in a most wonderful way. She is a joy to watch.

This is not to say that Lauren Kennedy, as Mary and Anneliese van der Pol as Kathy are not first rate performers. In step with Stiles from pep rally to penthouse, through thick and thin (thanks to Dan Knechtges's vigorous musical staging), they concertedly help to empower all the corny, cliché-riddled episodes that we are to endure.

Heifner's play Vanities was a huge hit racking up 1,785 performances Off Broadway more than thirty years ago. Based on what is in front of us now, however, I can't fully account for the play's success. And I'm not sure that the updating of the text with an epilogue in the '90s and the implementation of songs make it that much better. Perhaps in its time, women were beginning to look more introspectively at the image they were seeing in their vanity mirrors. The original device of using three mirrored vanities throughout the show as conduits for these friends ("Setting Your Sights,") remains a clever one.

A quick change of hairdos (wigs) and Mary, Joanne and Kathy are putting on their blue and yellow cheerleader outfits. They are back in high school shaking their pompoms in unison and practicing for a rally. They also discuss the big three issues of life — sex, boys and sex. Need we say more than it is Dallas, Texas, Friday morning November 22, 1963?

That scene segues to a sorority house in 1968. Joanne, the brunette prepares for marriage, children and a home in Greenwich, Connecticut. Kathy, the redhead, will be getting a degree in education but her friends still know her as the high school party planner (stuffing chicken wire with crepe paper). Mary is blonder and emboldened by the prospects of a life of liberated abandon as she plans for an extended post graduation tour of international bedrooms. They continue to talk about sex, boys, and sex.

The summer reunion of '74 is at a penthouse terrace apartment. Kathy is living there but under what circumstances? Mary shocks her friends with her successful business. But wait! Joanne who is presumably happy having babies gets a little tipsy on champagne and lets loose with the show's best song, "The Same Old Music.," In it she implores Mary and Kathy to "show me that time has kept us in the game.," It's a wonderful razzmatazz number that registers and delivers in the way no other song in the show does. What starts out as a cozy high tea, however, ends up with souls bared and friendships strained to the breaking point as a bombshell is dropped on Joanne.

It might be fair to say that Kirshenbaum's songs do buoy a text that has always been purposefully shallow. They are certainly meant to go beneath the surface values and priorities these women have expressed either in common or in contrast. In fairness, most of the songs do serve to add texture, complexity and a dimension to these women. True, but they are also starting from a point somewhere near zero.

Judith Ivey's direction is robust and determined to energize the otherwise bittersweet banality at the heart of the musical. Anna Louizos's mobile settings are attractive and efficient and costume designer Joseph G. Aulisi's right-on-the-mark fashions offer their own sub-text to the characters created by Kennedy, Stiles and van der Pol. The musical ends in 1990 at a funeral back in Texas. No reason to reveal who died, but rather infer what it is that may have died on the way there.

Vanities, A New Musical
Book by Jack Heifner
Music & Lyrics by David Kirshenbaum Directed by Judith Ivey
Musical Staging by Dan Knechtges

Cast: Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles, Anneliese van der Pol
Set Design: Anna Louizos
Costume Design: Joseph G. Aulisi
Lighting Design: Paul Miller
Sound Design: Tony Meola & Zach Williamson
Musical Director & Additional Vocal Arrangements: Bryan Perri
Orchestrations & Additional Arrangements: Lynne Shankel
Music Coordinator: Howard Joines
Vocal Arrangements: Carmel Dean
Running Time: 1 hours 35 minutes no intermission
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street
(212) 246 - 4422 or online:
Tickets ($75)
Performances: Tuesday at 7 PM; Wednesday - Saturday at 8 PM; Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM and Sunday at 3 PM.
Opened 07/16/09
Ends 08/09/09
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 07/13/09
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