Vanities: The Musical

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Vanities: The Musical

The York Theatre Company

Theatre at St. Jean’s, NYC, March 28, 2023

Reviewed by Bart Greenberg

Jack Heifner’s play Vanities was a landmark drama of the late 1970s/early ‘80s and one of the first successful plays to explore the friendships of women. (Sex and the City was far in the future but had some of the same vibe.) And successful it was, running for 1,785 performances, launching the careers of many young actresses including Kathy Bates, and received an HBO filmed version as well as legions of college and regional theater productions. It told the tale of three females, first as high-school seniors, then as college students facing graduation, and finally five years later as women who have taken on different lifestyles and have moved apart. Surprisingly, the ending was both inconclusive and rather downbeat; none of the characters found fulfillment in the paths they had chosen, and their lifelong relationships were left in tatters.

Some years ago, David Kirshenbaum convinced the playwright that he was the right man to transform the play into a musical, with Heifner providing the book and making some changes along the way. Some of those changes worked well, some less so, including the addition of a fourth and final scene that brought the characters into 1990—16 years after the original ending—and giving them a more resolved ending. Another alteration is that while in the original version the women specifically came from a small town in Texas, in this version they come from a vague, unidentified region. The lack of details leaves the story anchorless and undercuts the girls’ early life. It also makes the last-moment reversion to the first scene less effective.

That reversion demonstrated how insular and highly unaware of anything outside of their own sphere they were. Their personalities were just beginning to emerge, and their interests and goals at that point were mostly similar. That’s a vital issue undercut in this production by its diverse and nontraditional casting. Three cheerleaders who are intent on running all the social events in their school (whether that’s because they are the best at doing this or simply that they are the only students who care is left up to the audience to decide). They are both the cheerleaders and the prom committee, among other things. Kathy (Amy Keum), is the intense planner; Joanne (Hayley Podschun, seeming to be channeling Sandy Dennis) is the conservative neurotic; and Mary (Jade Jones), is the unconventional one. All of the characters are well-defined by the script and by the performers, who define their physical lives. All three have fine singing voices.

The next scene, about four years later, demonstrates that none of them have changed all that much. Oblivious to the conflict in Viet Nam and thinking that the musical Hair is a happy show about sunshine, they are alarmed that the sorority in which they are now officers may be changed by younger, more aware co-eds. Their main concern remains men.

While Mary, having begun to explore her sexuality, is ready to “Fly into the Future,” Kathy is more adrift than ever, clinging to her lists and charts as she reminisces about “Cute Boys with Short Haircuts” (one of the most effective songs in a pleasant score). By the time 1974 rolls around, Kathy is living in a gorgeous Manhattan apartment that she doesn’t own (it’s a mystery who the owner is, which raises far more questions than answers) and has had a nervous breakdown. Mary runs an erotic art gallery downtown and has a frantic and varied sex life, and Joanne is a not-so-happy homemaker in the suburbs with three kids and a weakness for alcohol. These developments are a logical result of the earlier scenes and are sadly believable.

Then we get a fourth scene set many years later where we are informed of all that has occurred since the previous scene, all of which seems quite pat and not a logical continuation of the story. It doesn’t help that none of the performers are able to suggest they are now 50 years old.

James Morgan came up with an effective set: a white box with various chairs and table units easily rearranged by the cast that allowed the show to move fluidly. Barbara Erin Delo provided appropriate costumes that defined both the characters and the time periods. The twist was that the costumes were only displayed only on mannequins at the rear of the stage while the actors never changed out of their black outfits, which allowed for short pauses between the scenes. The direction by Will Pomerantz and the choreography by Shannon Lewis were simple and unfussy, but lacked any particular distinction. The York Theatre’s Vanities: The Musical offered a pleasant but underpowered evening.

Bart Greenberg

Bart Greenberg first discovered cabaret a few weeks after arriving in New York City by seeing Julie Wilson and William Roy performing Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter outdoors at Rockefeller Center. It was instant love for both Ms. Wilson and the art form. Some years later, he was given the opportunity to create his own series of cabaret shows while working at Tower Records. "Any Wednesday" was born, a weekly half-hour performance by a singer promoting a new CD release. Ann Hampton Callaway launched the series. When Tower shut down, Bart was lucky to move the program across the street to Barnes & Noble, where it thrived under the generous support of the company. The series received both The MAC Board of Directors Award and The Bistro Award. Some of the performers who took part in "Any Wednesday" include Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock, Tony Desare, Andrea Marcovicci, Carole Bufford, the Karens, Akers, Mason and Oberlin, and Julie Wilson. Privately, Greenberg is happily married to writer/photographer Mark Wallis, who as a performance artist in his native England gathered a major following as "I Am Cereal Killer."