At 33, divorced and mother of two, cabaret writer Gretchen Cryer used her own identity crisis in writing book and lyrics for a groundbreaking musical about the role of women in contemporary society. The Joseph Papp production encountered critical resistance after its 1978 opening but ran for 1,165 perfs at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater because it touched a nerve. Twenty-five years later, the same honesty and relevance shine through in a sensitively directed addition to the Reprise “Marvelous Musical Monday” series.
Sharon Lawrence, three-time Emmy winner and star of Broadway’s “Chicago,” is perfectly cast as Heather, Cryer’s alter-ego, a pop star who wants to cut new songs that reflect her liberation from former, constricting emotional patterns. A daughter always told by daddy to smile and try to please, then a smilingly pliant wife, Heather wants her comeback album to be cuttingly personal, even if it courts commercial disaster.
This desire sets up the main conflict with longtime manager Joe (Thomas Ian Griffith), who barks bluntly, “Let’s what see you’ve got, and then we’ll see if we can save it.”
Tension mounts as Joe puts down Heather’s hair, reacts with horror when she suggests mentioning she’s 39 and denigrates her proposed new image by remarking, “Olivia Newton-John is not a ballbreaker.”
The way Heather fights back, first tactfully, then with increasing urgency, gives the script and show its backbone.
Director Kay Cole has made a conscious and clever choice. In the original, Joe was a harsher figure, a manager type who embodied every unflattering stereotype. Cole has guided Griffith into a more subtle and affecting interp that shows the character’s practical side but also genuine caring for his client. Griffith’s shaded portrait adds poignancy to all his skirmishes with Heather.
Lawrence makes this balance possible by imbuing her role with strong emotion that never tips over into stridency. Her singing of such captivating songs as “Lonely Lady” and ‘Old Friend” has reflective warmth. She projects believable frustration when complaining, “I’m tired of my old act,” and humorously emphasizes the unfairness of a double standard that insists women remain forever youthful and wrinkle-free while applauding lines on male faces as attractive and sexy.
As Jake, a 24-year-old singer in Heather’s band, Gil McKinney is a powerful presence. The part is small and McKinney’s star quality makes one wish he had more to do. McKinney’s renditions of “In a Simple Way I Love You” and “If Only Things Were Different,” in which he expresses unrequited love for Heather, have an innocent, youthful appeal.
Beth Curry and Beth Malone, playing other backup performers, add excitement to “Natural High” and the pertinent “Put in a Package and Sold.”
Onstage band, under Paul Baker’s musical direction, does a beautiful job with Nancy Ford’s melodies, lending credibility to Heather’s pop-star persona. Philip G. Allen’s sound enhances the score by keeping Lawrence and company out front and still spotlighting show’s instrumental pulse. Like “Assassins,” Reprise’s other one-night wonder earlier this season, “I’m Getting My Act Together” richly deserves a longer run.