The recipe for gazpacho is scrawled large across the curtain at Lincoln Center Theater’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Like the dish in question, the new Almodovarsical is refreshing, peppery and palate-cleansing, but it is still, in the end, cold tomato soup — invigorating and highly spiced, but not satisfying enough for a full meal or a full evening’s entertainment. Tuner is blessed with some delicious performances and any number of items of interest, but the result can be summed up as women (and men) on the verge of a coherent musical.
It’s not for want of trying. Lincoln Center Theater and director Bartlett Sher — who in recent seasons have teamed for the excellent “The Light in the Piazza,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “South Pacific” — have labored through harshly visible in-town preview problems; judging by early reports, the show has improved considerably. But not enough. Pedro Almodovar’s quirky 1988 Spanish-language comedy, which follows six characters in search of peace (or Valium, at least), offers plenty of plot but few plateaus for songwriter David Yazbek and librettist Jeffrey Lane (who combined for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”).
Show is not unlike the now-legendary “Company,” another unconventional, free-form musical that examined contemporary relationships in the big city. Madrid of the ’80s fills in for ’60s Manhattan, and at the center of the circle is 30-year-old Pepa (Sherie Rene Scott) in lieu of 40-year-old Bobby. The “Company” team found a way to maneuver the pitfalls of an episodic story, but Sher and friends haven’t quite been able to make sense of “Verge.”
Part of the problem is all those characters, played by all those musical-comedy luminaries, unable to step back into a supportive ensemble when necessary. Patti LuPone, who makes her first appearance looking like a dumpling under a ghastly mushroom-shaped hat, is funnier than she has ever been; our eyes are riveted to her, but unwisely so, as she plays the subsidiary character of Lucia, the leading lady’s ex-lover’s ex-wife. Brian Stokes Mitchell is a poor choice as the ex-lover (and unsuspecting father-to-be) and Lucia’s husband; this audience favorite can’t help but disappoint, as he’s provided with virtually nothing of interest to perform.
Danny Burstein (Luther Billis in “South Pacific”) comes and goes as a cheerful taxi driver who provides Pepa with candies and eyedrops; so does de’Adre Aziza (“Passing Strange”), who plays — it does get complicated — Lucia’s lawyer and her ex-husband’s newest lover.
Stealing every scene, and earning full audience devotion, is Laura Benanti, a winning Louise opposite LuPone in the recent “Gypsy” and even more impressive in last season’s “In the Next Room.” Benanti is brilliantly funny as a fashion model who discovers that she is harboring a terrorist. Bouncing impossibly across the stage, she stops the show cold with a telephone song (“Model Behavior”) that approaches the heights of Sondheim’s “Getting Married Today.”
All of which leaves Scott (“Everyday Rapture”), as Pepa, in something of a lurch; put her in a scene with Benanti or LuPone — or, for that matter, Nikka Graff Lanzarone and Justin Guarini, as a very funny odd couple who wander into Pepa’s penthouse — and you lose sight of which of the many women on the verge is the true center of the story.
Director Sher has collaborated with Michael Yeargan (sets), Brian MacDevitt (lights) and Sven Ortel (projections) to produce a visually fascinating show, clearly influenced by Almovodar’s cinematic technique. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli and costume designer Catherine Zuber add to the fun as well. But Lane and the talented Yazbek, in an attempt to stay true to the film and provide songs and scenes for each of their nine featured principals, have spread their story so thin that audience interest soon deflates.
If “Women on the Verge” must be seen as a disappointment, the Shubert Organization’s $14.5 million dollar renovation of the Belasco is a major success. The 103-year-old house — originally the Stuyvesant, built by showman David Belasco — has emerged resplendent, with the custom-made Tiffany lighting fixtures and the numerous painted murals carefully cleaned and restored. New plumbing, too.