The Playhouse Theatre
Northumberland Avenue, London WC2N 5DE
Now here is a true joy: this production, based on Pedro Almodovar's great film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, that just opened at the Playhouse Theatre in London is the best smart, rollicking, moving, funny, satisfying piece of musical theater I have seen in ages!
Nancy and I were at the opening night performance on 12 January Monday, and it was wildly successful. Jeffrey Lane (book) and our friend David Yazbek (music and lyrics) have discovered the heart and soul of Almodovar's film, and they and Bart Sher have combined to create an experience that leads one through the madcap complexities of Pedro's world in a way that makes sense both in terms of story and emotion. It is hilariously funny, and yet it captures the deep emotional soul of the story. Backstage after the opening night performance, I told Pedro—who was ecstatic about the show, BTW—that I thought they had really succeeded in capturing the deep central thrust of his film; and he said, "Yes...and actually better than I did!" We compromised on the idea that somehow they had internalized and channeled his soul in what they had created—in a wonderfully successful way.
David Yazbek's totally engaging Spanish-style music and intelligent, witty, humor of the lyrics—which, while you're busy being amused and entertained by their cleverness, work their way into your heart and touch unexpected levels of emotional response—are totally fabulous. Jeffrey Lane's book moves one through the emotional swirl of Almodovar's great comic farce with a clarity that carries one firmly along with the plot, without losing an ounce of the subtlety of the film's emotional whirlwind of twists and turns. (David and Jeffrey have another wonderful play on which they collaborated that is on in London at the moment, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, at the Savoy Theatre.) Bart Sher's direction is crisp and clear and forms a solid foundation on which all successfully develops and is played out. Anthony Ward's set is amazingly simple, but effective—and is given a surprising level of richness and variation by the lighting of Peter Mumford.
Nevertheless, the production gets much of its marvelous electricity, depth, and vitality from the amazing chemistry that exists between the creative team and the cast members—and among the cast members themselves. They all apparently formed a creative community together that befits a Pedro Almodovar community and his film (well, at least the creative dimensions of such a community); and the joy and intensity of their interaction does wonders for the performance.
As the main character Pepa, the actress who has just been jilted by her lover Ivan, Tamsin Greig performs in a way that is so powerfully present and emotionally real that she is totally riveting on stage. Greig’s incredibly superb acting abilities come through in her singing (although a highly successful and respected actor, this is her debut in a singing role!) as well as in her acting, giving powerfully clear and profoundly resonant expression to every one of David Yazbek’s clever lyrics, complex meanings, and deep emotions, as well as the those of the lines by Jeffrey Lane. Right from her opening solo, “Lovesick,” it I clear that she is nailing the role with power, depth, and clarity that was not achieved in the Pepa Sherie Rene Scott created for the Broadway production.
I am someone who very much liked the original Broadway musical version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (q.v., my review) four years ago; but I have readily to admit that this new version is worlds better. To begin with, the story has been reconfigured to provide a clear focus on the central female characters and their story lines—which, after all, were Almodóvar’s central interest, despite the array of other characters and subplots; and the new production provides a clear story line that carries one firmly and comfortably through all the twists and turns of this madcap farce, without reducing any of the story’s richness or complexity. Also, all of the over-produced, complexly staged, confusions of the first version are gone, replaced with a far more sparse but meaningful simplicity: gone are the multiple conveyor belts moving actors and objects; the fully-presented taxicab is now just two chairs and a steering wheel. David has created two new songs for this production (and removed the only two I had not completely loved in the original Broadway production), and this, too, adds to the clear flow of the plot.
The wonderful Haydn Gwynne is cast as Lucia, Ivan’s wife, just returned from a 19 year stay in a mental hospital. This casting represents another big change, since Gwynne plays Lucia and is costumed in a way that more evokes an evil, deluded, borderline (if I may use a technical term) Jackie Kennedy than the more caricatured, psychotic Lucia of Pedro’s film, and of the Broadway production. There is one hilarious sight gag reference to the original characterization when Lucia is going through a trunk of old possessions; but the change—and Haydn Gwynne‘s portrayal are actually so successful that it completely compensates for the loss of that farcical element—and even of Patti LuPone’s marvelous version of the character in the Broadway run.
Pepa’s scattered, harebrained model friend, Candela, is wonderfully portrayed by Anna Skellern, who is fantastic doing her big number, “Model Behavior” (a patter song composed of snippets of answering messages she is desperately leaving Pepa because she is realizing the new man who is living with her is a Shia terrorist being pursued by the police) in a completely satisfying, comic frenzy.
But the entire cast is terrific, including Ricardo Afonso as the taxi driver (and sometime commentator on the action, and singer of David’s fabulous opening number, “Madrid”) and Holly James who entrancingly plays “the Matador,” a mysterious dream figure or ancillary ego to Pepa, who silently moves throughout the performance with amazing grace at times with Brechtian placards announcing information about the scene.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a fast-paced, completely absorbing, and totally enjoyable theatre experience. It is one you will not want to miss if you are anywhere near London!
Not that I put much stock in such things, but the reviews of the show have been great. (q.v., Dominick Cavendish in The Telegraph, "An absolute joy of an evening, built paradoxically on the despair, rejection, heart-break and jealousy that comes with love betrayed"; Paul Taylor in the The Indpendent, "It's no wonder that Almodovar has given this exhilarating version his blessing"; Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times, "Tamsin Greig stars in a joyous musical adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s film."