The day before I saw the new musical version of Pedro Almodóvar’s manic cult classic “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” I watched the DVD of the quirky film. (I admit I’m a fan — I own a deluxe boxed set of his work.)
Premiering in 1988, the work was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and made the out gay Spanish director an instant global celebrity, an edgy cinematic force impossible to ignore.
The appeal of this over-the-top, caustic comedy is not easy to pin down. The plot, about the entwined lives of hotheaded women wronged by men, is twisted to the point of farce. Characters are tormented, neurotic, drama-driven, and, come to think of it, not all that likable.
Almodóvar’s distinctive visual style is a profusion of disorienting close-ups, erratic cuts, and oversaturated hues. Rational logic, like the telephone angrily jettisoned by the central character, Pepa, is out the window. Oddly enough, it all worked.
As I screened the film for the first time in years, I wondered how Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Yazbek (score) could possibly fashion a coherent musical with this quivering material. How could director Bartlett Sher capture Almodóvar’s unique aesthetic, tone, and characters without lapsing into cold caricature, or worse, utter chaos?
Truth is, they don’t quite pull it off. “Women on the Verge” is on the verge of excellence, but falls short.
Much has been written in the press about the bone-headed decision to skip an out-of-town tryout. Previews were delayed to work out technical kinks. Theatergoers were skipping out at intermission. The buzz was so bad that the production was reworked right up until opening night. Apparently, the finale was deleted, and the Act II musical number hailing Madrid was cut-and-pasted to the top of the show. A smart move, for it delivers a heady burst of power and nicely sets the tone for the proceedings.
The large cast is a mish-mash of serviceable to spectacular, with individuals’ styles at odds with one another. Although the action is set in Madrid in 1987, accents are all over the map. Normally this would be a big drawback, but the randomness actually fits the show’s eccentric conceit.
As the frazzled Pepa, who is jilted by her longtime lover Ivan via phone answering machine, Sherie Rene Scott (“Everyday Rapture”), like her character, seems to be finding her footing. It’s not until late in Act I, when she concocts a Valium-laced gazpacho meant for Ivan, that Scott hits her stride. “I’m tired of being good,” she says. We nod our understanding.
After her legendary star turn as Momma Rose in “Gypsy,” it’s hard to accept Patti LuPone in a supporting role. She plays Lucia, the cast-off wife of Ivan who already had a nervous breakdown (resulting in a 19-year sanitarium stay) and is headed for another. LuPone does get her turn, so to speak, belting out “Invisible,” a stinging, sonorous ode to love gone astray.
As the philandering Ivan, Brian Stokes Mitchell, an ideal leading man in “Kiss Me Kate” and “Man of La Mancha,” is a powerhouse, but his booming baritone is too big for this show.
While some might fault Justin Guarini’s performance as strained (he plays Lucia’s bumbling son), his vocals are impressive. The former “American Idol” runner-up has virtually no track record onstage, and his mere presence alongside such Broadway greats only adds to our amusement.
The strongest portrayal by far is from Laura Benanti, who dazzled opposite LuPone in “Gypsy.” As Pepa’s paranoid gal pal Candela, on the run after hooking up with a swarthy guy who turns out to be a Shiite terrorist (Luis Salgado), she strikes just the right note of comic frenzy. Benanti grabs hold of the show’s most challenging song, “Model Behavior,” leaving breathless phone messages for Pepa detailing her predicament, and nails it.
Believe it or not, the film’s frenetic story has, by degrees, been streamlined and clarified. The taxi driver (Danny Burstein) has been elevated to part-time narrator, extolling the allure of a hedonistic post-Franco Madrid and the merits of being just a tad crazy. His cab, made of a metal framework, is a marvel as it careens around the stage.
The subplot about the hunky terrorist — we actually get to see him in the stage version, which explains why Candela falls for him so hard — is resolved more satisfyingly than in the film. References to Fellini’s “8 ½,” a key inspiration for Almodóvar, have been dialed down.
As if the plot and performances and score weren’t head-spinning enough, the inventive, hyperkinetic set (by Michael Yeargan) seems hopped up on Red Bull. Whizzing, intricate projections propel the thrills even further, though at times they prove distracting.
If any message can be gleaned from “Women on the Verge,” it’s that life is messy and unpredictable and you should just roll with it, grabbing whatever fleeting pleasures you can. In this eccentric jumble of a show, the pleasures are not conventional, but they can be found if you simply let yourself go.
WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF
A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN
Lincoln Center Theater Production
111 W. 44th St.
Through Jan. 23
Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.
Sun. at 3 p.m.