Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Bonfire of the Vanities

September 06, 2008

Sarah Stiles, Lauren Kennedy, and Anneliese van der Pol
Photo: Craig Schwartz 2008

Los Angeles is awash in pre-Broadway tryouts this Fall with a total of two, count ‘em two, shows prepping for openings to unsuspecting audiences on the other side of the country. Most notable is the likely highly quaffed Dolly Parton musical version of 9 to 5 that is about to open at the Ahmanson Theater downtown. But before we get to that potential train wreck, there are smaller fish to fry over at the Pasadena Playhouse where I caught the new musical adaptation of Jack Heifner’s late-70s hit, Vanities, which has also secured a space for a new York run early next year.

Heifner’s tale of three Texas high school cheerleaders and the changes in their young lives during the sixties and seventies was quite popular on Broadway for a number of years following its premiere in 1976. It served as a sort of Vagina Monologues for female performers of a different generation where “vagina” is substituted with “man” or “husband” in this work clearly from another era. (Actually, all things considered I wager there’s a fair amount of overlap between those two groups of performers than one might suspect.) Now Heifner has enlisted the help of David Kirshenbaum to adorn these goings-on with a number of solid musical numbers and a new scene at the end of the work creating more activity for the characters all the way up until 1990.

Despite this new scene however, Vanities can still seem very dated. (Sorry, a character admitting to having an abortion is just not that shocking anymore.) Yet the transfer to a musical existence is not all together unsuccessful and provides more than a few wistful and lightly entertaining moments. The songs are quite good including the solo numbers for the three cast members, “Fly Into the Future” (Mary), “Cute Boys with Short Haircuts” (Kathy), and “The Same Old Music” (Joanne). Vanities also looks quite good, often appearing much bigger and more glamorous than it actually is. Director Judith Ivey has not skimped here in any way and gives every moment serious attention. The cast has the requisite commitment and excitement to compensate for a paper-thin and highly episodic plot and includes Lauren Kennedy as Mary and Anneliese van der Pol as Kathy. While Sarah Stiles typically plays Joanne, on the night I attended, the understudy Elizabeth Brackenbury took over and seems to fit seamlessly into the production with a performance that easily matched her on-stage cohort.

So, even though nostalgia may cast too long a shadow over Vanities, there are certainly plenty of weaker musicals around based on far thinner concepts. Best of all it's a musical with memorable music which in this day and age is an achievement in its own right.


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