Had Elle Woods grown up in 1960s Texas before her consciousness was raised, she’d fit right into the ensemble of “Vanities, A New Musical,” now in tryout at the Pasadena Playhouse. Keying off Jack Heifner’s 1976 straight play, this energetic effort to tap into “Legally Blonde”‘s Girl Power vibe doesn’t always comfortably coexist with the original’s intimacy and dark undertones more akin to “A Catered Affair.” Gotham-bound tuner’s commercial fate will likely fall between those two extremes, though its long-term regional and community prospects may well outshine the three-decade prominence of Heifner’s original.
The “Vanities” triptych depicts three childhood BFFs bumbling their way through lives never quite working out as planned. At Texas high school cheerleading practice circa 1963, we’re well aware of the pride and prejudices – the vanities, yes? – of officious Kathy (Anneliese van der Pol), prim Joanne (Sarah Stiles) and lusty Mary (Lauren Kennedy) long before their relief that the Friday Night Lights will go on despite the President’s assassination. (They assume it’s the student council president, anyway.)
As they progress to college in 1968 and a 1974 reunion, we’re poised to relish each one’s gradual realization of the gap between her longtime wants and who she really is. In that way, Heifner infused a crowd-pleasing commercial comedy with a slyly satirical take on the unintended consequences of ’60s and ’70s feminism.
Tuner isn’t a genuine adaptation, merely the original play – given mostly snappy pacing from helmer Judith Ivey – with songs replacing selected monologues and conversation. David Kirshenbaum’s serviceable lyrics are on the verbose side (predictably, given their dialogue source), with music less evocative of stylistic shifts between 1963 and 1974 than one might expect.
Still, as staged by Dan Knechtges, numbers tend to morph imaginatively out of natural movement, carrying the character-development ball more than adequately in Mary’s determination to graduate and “Fly Into the Future,” or Kathy’s confession of difficulty dealing with “Cute Boys With Short Haircuts.”
“Vanities'” ensemble works devilishly hard to balance 20 years of character development with song and dance while executing changes in full view. (From revealing lingerie to a Mary Quant one-piece or a Laura Ashley-inspired knockoff, Joseph G. Aulisi’s amusing apparel consistently evokes period and relationships, reinforced by the elegant 60s collages of Anna Louizos’s settings.)
Lee Remick look-alike Kennedy invests flamboyant yet insecure Mary with all that late actress’s fire and fecklessness. As thoughtful Kathy, who travels furthest from clueless youth to hard-earned maturity, van der Pol serves as show’s dramatic and thematic anchor, beautifully charting her changing priorities through reprises of her signature “An Organized Life.”
Stiles scores with the evening’s sole showstopper, “The Same Old Music.” At the ill-fated 1974 reunion, fortified by tongue-loosening booze, actress sells Joanne’s rockabilly-tinged anthem to the good old days, as she and Knechtges recycle bits and pieces of old dance moves to indicate a mind disintegrating.
However, turning the bigoted Gorgon Joanne into a benign Betty Boop – and Ivey permits Stiles to overdo the mugging and self-conscious giggles – robs “Vanities” of much of its edge.
The play ends with a claws-out catfight and the bleak implication of friendships irreparably smashed. But since tuner is determined to celebrate Sisterhood rather than loss, the gals need to be de-clawed in preparation for an upbeat finale.
Reconciliation isn’t inherently unworkable for these characters; in interviews Heifner has pointed out middle aged folks’ willingness to hang onto old friends at any cost.
But a maladroit 1990 coda set in a funeral home is all exposition, along with some ineffective jokes and a less-than-rousing closing tune about “Letting Go.” (Time is also wasted on a gratuitous bait-n-switch as to the coffin’s contents.) We’re expected to forget the hatespeech of scene three, and blithely accept the working out of everyone’s problems after a little reflection and rehab.
If the conflicts of 16 years were brought right into that mortuary and got ironed out in our presence, scene four might evolve naturally from what’s come before. But at the moment, like the three women at the end of the original play, tuner’s two parts aren’t quite speaking to each other, and it remains to be seen whether they will.