Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown


This latest Broadway musical from our extremely talented friend David Yazbek (music and lyrics; whose prior musicals were The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), his partner from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Jeffrey Lane (book), and the wonderful director Bart Sher (most recently having come from his triumphant, Tony Award winning production of South Pacific at Lincoln Center) is a completely novel, wildly exciting, and deeply satisfying experience.  It successfully brings together David’s fabulous music and emotionally charged, yet always witty and incisive lyrics and Jeffrey Lane’s inventive and humorous writing with the iconic 1988 film by Pedro Almodóvar.  The great Almodóvar played a major role in every step of the development of the musical, and his participation shows in how well the theatrical version captures so much of what made the film so extraordinary.


The storyline faithfully follows that of the film.  It is a complex, convoluted, madcap farce centered about Pepa (Sherie Rene Scott), who has just been jilted via an answering machine message by her boyfriend, the aging Lothario Ivan (Brian Stokes Mitchell), with whom she works doing voice dubbing for films.  While Pepa tries frantically to contact Ivan, her girlfriend model Candela (Laura Benanti) is desperately trying to reach her for help with her latest of numerous infatuations—this one complicated by the fact that the man involved is a Shi’a terrorist with a bomb.  On her search to find Ivan, Pepa encounters Ivan’s deserted lunatic wife Lucia (Patti LuPone), newly released from a mental hospital, and also intent on tracking down Ivan.  Add in Lucia’s son Carlos (Justin Guaini) and his girl friend (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), who show up at Pepa’s looking to rent her apartment, Lucia’s attorney Paulina (de’Adre Aziza), who turns out to be Ivan’s new love interest, and an ever-present taxi driver (Danny Burstein) who here as in the film is eerily a suggestively Almodóvar-looking (deus in machina?) presence, and you have the same wonderful mix of elements and themes that made the movie such a wildly funny, deeply satisfying experience.  The momentum of the musical carries us through all this complexity with the same humor and energy that made the film work so well.  It even has actually succeeded in capturing the physical appearances of the characters—and even of the taxi cab and Pepa’s apartment with its unmistakable, meaning-laden terrace (also a major presence in Pedro’s latest film, Broken Embraces; q.v., my review from the 2009 New York Film Festival).  But, far more importantly, it captures the texture and feel of the world Almodóvar created for his characters and their interactions.  As with most of his films, Women on the Verge was not essentially plot-driven, despite the complexity of its plot.  It is the special, meaning-imbued, lovingly odd relational context that Almodóvar creates that is so unique and special; and it is this that this wonderful new musical most faithfully recreates.  (I got to speak with Pedro at the Opening Night Party, and he expressed his particular pleasure about how much the musical had succeeded in doing this.)


The mood of this film that is being captured is, in many ways, the quintessential expression of the spirit of post-Franco Spain.  The late Tony Judt (in his masterpiece, Postwar), used the films of Almodóvar in this period as both evidence of the end of Fascist influence in Spain at that time and as a window into the vitality and freedom of the spirit which replaced it)  In an essay Pedro wrote, quoted in the Playbill, he said:


In 1987, when I wrote the script of Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, Madrid was a party.  Democracy had arrived in our country a decade before, and the most playful, hedonistic side of the Spanish character had exploded…  I had the good fortune to be young at that time.  My films from the ’80s reflect that explosion of freedom which illuminated everything.  You could say that even grief was joyful.


And this musical captures the same “party”—the same vibrant vitality, the same emotional freedom and intensity—as did the film.


David Yazbek’s music, as always, is sensational and provides the major emotional expression of the spirit of the work:  energetic, soulful, witty, and moving—but this time with a Sapnish feel.  Right from to opening number (the exciting, toe-tapping “Madrid,” sung by the taxi driver against a projected collage of photographic images of that city [you can hear the demo version of David Yazbek singing this song by clicking here ), through Pepa’s wonderful number “Lovesick” and the hilarious, show-stopping patter song “Model Behavior” (a series of answering machine messages left by Candela in her desperate attempt to get in touch with Pepa), and including all the women singing the riveting “On the Verge” at the end of the first act, and then Ivan’s “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” Lucia’s movingly fabulous recounting of her loss and madness in “Invisible,” right through to the moving and beautiful “Talk to Me” with which Pepa ends the show—every part of the show is made vibrant by David’s fabulous score.


The acting and singing is all of the highest caliber, although certainly Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti are incredible standouts, and Danny Burstein also gives an impressive performance.  One of my few disappointments was that Sherie Rene Scott was not as wonderful as I have come to expect:  her performance was perfectly adequate; it just never soared to the levels it might have—and that some of the others achieved.


The combination of the incredible set design by Michael Yeargan and the projections by Sven Ortel add amazingly to the energy and richness of the experience, creating a visual environment that is at once a realistic evocation of the physical spaces of Madrid in which the action tales place, while at the same time being an almost Mondrian-esque symbolic expression of the emotional meaning of those spaces.  The effect is both novel and rewardingly successful—and very much in keeping with the multi-dimensional cinematographic spaces created by Almodóvar himself in the film.


Women on the Verge is not your run-of-the-mill musical.  Almost everything about it is novel and—appropriately—“on the edge.”  The pacing is unusual, the set design is unusual, the format is unusual—the wonderful part being that, in the end, it all works unusually well!  Even the ending is a brave—and ultimately very successful—departure from the expectable, formulaic Broadway approach: rather than a big, rousing finale, Women on the Verge ends with the tender, poignant “Talk to Me.”  It is as beautiful and moving as it is unexpectedly and contrapuntally tranquil in relation to the high energy of what has preceded it. 


As was mentioned in Patrick Healy’s NY Times article of 6 October (which I sent out as a Culture Alert at the time), the play also took the unusual and risky step of opening directly on Broadway, without an out of town run first.  This decision led to an incredibly hectic and pressured month of previews, during which time Women on the Verge was extensively and repeatedly reworked, changed, tweaked, and reworked all over again.  If you saw the play in its earliest incarnations, you have not seen anything like the finished product.  It was only in the final days before opening night that the energy and complexity of all that goes on within this fantastic production finally came together and resolved in a completely integrated way.  I find myself wondering whether some of the reviewers who found it too frenetic, or who did not appreciate the incredibly coherent flow which ultimately ties the experience together and creates an understandable and powerful motion through it, may actually have seen too early a performance of it.  (This possibility hardly justifies the inexplicably snotty, often self-contradictory negative reactions of the NY Times’ Ben Brantley; but, then, what ever does?)


Nevertheless, when all is said and done, it was still an amazingly complex undertaking to make this unbelievably complicated story into a musical; and director Bart Sher deserves enormous credit and admiration for pulling it all the elements together and orchestrating the experience in a form that works so extremely well.  At the party I said to him, “Bravo, bravo, arcibravo!”  (Given Ivan’s womanizing that underlies the experience of the women about whom the play revolves, can it be too far off to quote Don Giovanni?)


If you love Almodóvar, you cannot afford to miss this musical.  If you do not know Almodóvar, then go see this musical and you will then discover you want to know Almodóvar.  And, Almodóvar aside, go see Women on the Verge because it is so much fun, and just so damn good!


Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is now playing at the newly renovated  Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street


Tickets are available through Telecharge.


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