Vanities, the new Broadway-bound musical at the Pasadena Playhouse, takes a tuneful, laugh-filled, and sometimes emotional look at the lives of three small town Texas women from the optimistic Camelot years of the early 1960s, through the draft card and bra burning the late 60s, and on into the swinging 70s. Based on Jack Heifner’s immensely popular three-character three-scene comedy (one of the longest running plays in off-Broadway history), Vanities (the musical) adds David Kirshenbaum’s catchy melodies and story-propelling lyrics to the mix, plus a fourth scene (bringing the women up to 1990), to create a laughter and tear-filled 90-minute musical journey through the lives of three very different best friends.

We first meet Mary, Joanne, and Kathy as high school cheerleaders in the year 1963, spraying their nearly identical bouffant hairdos and singing about how just wonderful life is. “The sky is a heaven of blue whenever I’m looking at you,” pretty much sums up their outlook, and arguments about whether their pompoms should be up or down at a particular moment in a cheer are about as serious as things get for these carefree gals.

College looms, however, as does the possibility that going off to school might separate them. In “I Can’t Imagine,” the three girls wonder about their lives after high school: “I can’t imagine not being popular all my life through.” “I’d die if I couldn’t share college with you,” Joanne sings to her two best friends.

Soon the girls are once again “at our vanities, facing life’s insanities,” as the scene changes to a sorority house in 1968 Dallas, a large blowup of Joni Mitchell’s Clouds album cover adorning the wall. The threesome, who seemed pretty much interchangeable in the first scene, now begin to distinguish themselves.  Mary is the party girl looking forward to freedom (preferably in Rome); Kathy is the organizer (who always seems to have a new design use for chicken wire); and Joanne is, well, Joanne is “Snow White.”  

In “Fly Into The Future,” Mary, who has “changed my boyfriends as often as I change my sweater sets,” sings about escaping from a slutty mom and a cheating dad and beginning life anew…in Rome.  Joanne wonders whether after six years with boyfriend Ted, she should finally go all the way. And in “Cute Boys With Short Haircuts,” Kathy sings of the pain of having lost her college sweetheart to a girl he’d only known for a month.  “He says he’s true … and ditches you for her.”

The future means finding jobs. In an irony of ironies, Mary, the messiest, is going to become an interior decorator. Kathy chooses to be a PE teacher because what better than to play games and have fun? And Joanne?  Well, she’s graduating with a degree in music because there was never a line at the music course sign-up table, so marriage to Ted seems the smartest (or at least easiest) move.  Not to worry—they’ll be there for each other, and with “We’re Gonna Be Okay,” college life comes to a close.

Much has changed when the three women meet again six years later on the terrace of the Manhattan penthouse apartment where Kathy lives.  Joanne and Ted have been married for as many years as they dated (adding up to 12 years together, three kids already with plans for a fourth). Joanne’s Laura Ashley Little House On The Prairie gingham dress is nothing at all like Kathy’s sophisticated slacks and Mary’s runway model chic. But all is not as it seems on the surface, fissures in their decade long friendship begin to appear, and soon the kid gloves have come off.

Will the three women’s friendship survive another decade?  Far be it from me to spoil the ending.  Suffice it to say, getting there is a bumpy but thoroughly enjoyable ride, thanks to Heifner’s book, which retains the best of the original play, with songs by Kirshenbaum adding music to the mix. In fact, having seen Vanities as a musical, it’s hard to imagine the play without the songs, so completely are they woven into the plot.

A three-person musical like Vanities depends, obviously, on the caliber of triple-threats assigned the trio of roles, and here as well, the Pasadena Playhouse production has come up a winner.

Lauren Kennedy has shown herself over the last decade or so to be one of musical theater’s most talented and versatile stars. The original cast CD of Trevor Nunn’s London production of South Pacific reveals her to be a Nelly Forbush bar none, and the role of anti-heroine Mary proves that Kennedy can be just as great when she’s being bad. With one of the most crystal pure sopranos in the business, Kennedy shines in her every musical moment, most especially in her “Fly Into The Future” solo, and manages to make bad girl Mary a character we come to love, never more so than in the final scene where we realize that … (No spoiler here!)

As Kathy, Anneliese van der Pol makes a stunning Pasadena Playhouse debut, taking the enthusiastic “planner” of the opening scene through her character’s painful breakup in the exquisite (and exquisitely performed) “Cute Boys With Short Haircuts,” a Kirshenbaum ballad which packs the evening’s biggest emotional wallop.  Lucky van der Pol gets not one but two solos, the second being, “An Organized Life,” which she sings in one of the richest and most powerful voices you’re likely to hear for quite a while, about Kathy’s nervous breakdown and the other things she’s gotten over/past in her life.

Finally, stepping in for Sarah Stiles in the role of Joanne, Elizabeth Brackenbury proves herself a sensational singer/actress and a stupendous trooper to boot.  Without a single rehearsal, Brackenbury underwent a trial by fire on opening weekend Sunday, going on as Joanne at both performances, and once again the following Tuesday, the performance reviewed here.  In a star turn that separates the amateurs from the pros, Brackenbury gives a performance so charming and funny and totally assured that it is hard to imagine the role being performed better.  Capturing all of Joanne’s homespun sweetness, her heartbreaking disillusionment, and her survivor spunk, Brackenbury absolutely rocks in her pizzazzy showstopper, “The Same Old Music,” a star turn worthy of the best.

Actor/director Judith Ivey is clearly an actor’s director, and no actress could do as fine work as Kennedy, van der Pol, and Brackenbury do here without the guidance of a Judith Ivey at the helm. Dan Knechtges’s lively musical staging has the gals a-dancin’ and a-cheerin’ and a-winnin’ hearts.  Musical director/vocal arranger Carmel Dean conducts the 8-piece band, which sounds twice as big and does ample justice to Kirshenbaum’s lovely melodies, set to Lynne Shankel’s orchestrations.

Vanities’ design team has put together a show which fills the Pasadena Playhouse with color and light and sound.  Anna Louisoz’s scenic design begins each scene with three large vanities, which then revolve and are joined by other set pieces from above and both sides to become a richly detailed college dorm room, sorority house, and penthouse terrace, lit to perfection by Paul Miller.  Tony Meola’s sound design does justice to both singers and musicians, and Joseph G. Aulisi’s costumes reflect the personalities of the three women and the various eras depicted in Heifner’s funny, perceptive book. An extra tip of the hat to Josh Marquette for the era/character-specific wigs.

The Pasadena Playhouse is proving itself THE L.A. theater for original and boldly revised musicals, from Sister Act: The Musical, to Can-Can, to Ray Charles Live, to Mask, and now to Vanities, the most intimate of the bunch (no big ensemble is needed to back up these three ladies) and also one of the best.  

Mary, Kathy, and Joanne are so much fun to spend an hour and a half with, the menfolk will be joining the ladies in singing their praises. In fact, just down the row from me sat a husband who was laughing and applauding even louder than his wife. 

For laughter, music, and a tear or two to boot, Vanities is unbeatable entertainment.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
September 2, 2008
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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