The premise of J.J. McColl’s feminist musical — that menopause is both liberating and empowering — comes across as wishful thinking in this relentlessly pleasant tuner about four matrons who swap midlife horror stories at their 35th high school reunion. As woven into a loose narrative, the songs and anecdotal material on show’s bummer topic are clean in content, polite in tone and inoffensive to a fault — a reflection, no doubt, of the Canadian women who freely confided their experiences to the scribe (a veteran writer and broadcaster for CBC radio and TV) in taped interviews at potluck dinners.
Predictably, this nice show (originally produced for CBC Radio and staged at Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Center in 1998) was popular with nice ladies of a certain age in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Sensibly marketed, and without the pretense that it is “hot stuff,” the mild-mannered material could score with comparable target auds in the provincial U.S.
Preeming the show in Manhattan, however, poses a problem, illustrated at a preview perf when a theater party of about a dozen premenopausal women from Westchester convened in the lobby at intermission to air their collective discontent. “When they said ‘hot,’ I thought they meant hot,” one outraged sophisticate said. “Who knew they meant hot flashes!” Touchingly, a 50ish woman stepped in and tried to explain the show’s bittersweet humor to the youngsters, but to no avail. At least nine of the kids ankled at intermish.
So, yes, the show does present a generational challenge, and the apple-pie wholesomeness of Sue Wolf’s perky direction doesn’t help a bit. At age 53, the four women who meet on the stage of their old high school auditorium to rehearse a musical revue they plan to perform at the reunion are obviously past their prime and anxious about the future.
Kate (Deborah Jean Templin) is the talented one who never made it as a writer and fears she’ll never live up to her youthful promise. Cynthia (Marnee Hollis) gave up a shot to sing at La Scala to marry well and now has cause to regret it. Marnie (Deirdre Kingsbury) is a successful executive but a bitter, lonely woman who plays with boytoys. Zsu Zsu (Jane Seaman), the widowed Hungarian cleaning woman who insinuates her way into the group, is a once-famous actress who now can’t get work.
The midlife crises that obsess these women — aged parents, estranged children, lost opportunities, failed marriages, diminished sex appeal, health problems, shrinking finances, uncertain earning potential and all the rest of it — are specific to their age group and of limited interest to younger women.
While the premenopausal crowd might respond to the mild comic conceit that Cynthia’s philandering husband has bedded every woman onstage, it’s doubtful they could relate to the sense of desperation underlying the older women’s complaints of sexual dissatisfaction.
Even more distancing than the generation gap is the show’s naive sensibility. Existential issues are bluntly articulated — “We had our dreams. And then, at this age, something changes. … Dreams get lost” — and left unexamined in the vacuous dialogue. Woman to woman, auds of any age might feel a certain detached sympathy for these unhappy sisters. But the characters’ utter lack of self-awareness makes it hard to empathize.
Complexity is no less foreign a concept to the songs, with their simplistic musical structures and artless lyrics. From time to time, McColl’s wide-eyed approach gets right to the heart of the matter of growing old. In the blues-flavored “Coattails,” she nails the defining moment when a woman who has lived her life as “somebody’s mother/somebody’s daughter/somebody’s wife” realizes she has lost her own identity.
But for the most part, the women whose fragile egos are restored through a collective dose of “women wisdom” seem entirely too sweet and clueless for their cosmopolitan sisters to identify with.