Let’s hope the long list of associate producers means Second Stage landed a big chunk of enhancement money for “Vanities, a New Musical,” because someone needs to be getting something out of this flavorless — though not sugarless — bubblegum. There’s hardly a single original thought in this string of familiar Southern-fried female-friendship cliches, laced with platitudinous life lessons. And while probably nobody was expecting depth from such ultra-light material, would the occasional campy zinger have been too much to ask? Despite the three talented actresses fleshing out the gal-pal stereotypes, the only surprise here is that the show was ever considered for Broadway.
The New York run was originally announced for the Rialto last season, but those plans fell apart after the 2008 Pasadena Playhouse tryout, around the same time the economy began nosediving and a bunch of other ill-considered Broadway hopefuls were pulling the plug. In this Off Broadway fallback position, it’s hard to reconcile that such a pedestrian effort is being presented at the same venue that in recent years shepherded distinctive musicals like “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Next to Normal” and “Everyday Rapture.”
The show was adapted by Jack Heifner from his nonmusical 1976 play “Vanities,” a long-running Off Broadway hit that chronicled 11 years in the lives and friendship of a trio of high school cheerleaders from small-town Texas. While the original play (which was filmed for HBO) had some satirical teeth and poignancy in its observation of dreams turned sour and bonds broken, any hint of darker undertones has pretty much faded away. When the bitter resentments that ended the play — and the friendship — are aired in the musical, they seem merely a speed bump en route to the uplifting reconnection of a newly conceived coda scene.
The girls are more types than characters: Redhead Kathy (Anneliese van der Pol) is the bossy organizer; blonde Mary (Lauren Kennedy) the free-spirited sexual adventurer; and brunette Joanne (Sarah Stiles) the prim virgin who tends to be the Debbie Downer of the group.
The action tracks the friends’ progress over four points in time, demarcated by returns to their matching, faux-antique vanities for period-appropriate hair and wardrobe makeovers. We first encounter them in high school in 1963, then at a Dallas college five years later before leaping ahead to an awkward 1974 reunion in New York, where seemingly irreconcilable differences surface. Finally, they meet again in a funeral parlor some years later back in Texas, where the friction that tore them apart suddenly seems unimportant.
Whether expressed in dialogue — much of it lifted intact from Heifner’s play — or in David Kirshenbaum’s pleasant but samey showtunes inflected with period pop sounds, the girls’ concerns are standard issue. The early talk focuses on boyfriends, sex, parties and popularity, dreams of marriage, home and family or, in Mary’s case, of beguiling new horizons. But the show’s own outlook is decidedly narrow.
“We were high school cheerleaders and now we’re sorority girls,” squeals Joanne. “We’ve done it all! We ran the gamut!” Her unworldliness is played for laughs, but while Mary becomes an art gallery owner, Kathy an author and Joanne a more jaded divorcee, somewhat wiser to the realities of married life, their acquired sophistication doesn’t make them more interesting.
Social context is mostly glossed over, and while the play conveyed a sense of women coming of age during the burgeoning feminist movement, albeit in their own hermetic bubble, the musical fabricates a dated, thoroughly anonymous sitcom world. It’s a banal version of every femme-centric character piece that’s ever played on screens big or small, from “Steel Magnolias” and “The First Wives Club” to “The Golden Girls” and “Designing Women.” But its humor has none of the bite or freshness of any of those sisterhood models.
The lack of texture is especially a problem in the Manhattan interlude; up to that point, the girls have been cardboard cutouts, so the sudden grit of their animosities doesn’t wash. And the show doesn’t always ring true. Would a Joni Mitchell-loving libertarian like Mary really have been accepted in the rigidly conservative confines of a 1968 Dallas Kappa sorority house?
While Anna Louizos’ versatile sets have fun touches and Joseph G. Aulisi’s costumes add character definition, Dan Knechtges’ choreography is perky but unexciting, and Judith Ivey’s listless direction is too by-the-numbers to foster emotional investment. Kennedy, Stiles and van der Pol all bring big, confident voices and likable personalities, but the writing denies them any edge at all.