Imagine you’re a multitalented young writer-musician-performer with two failed marriages under your belt—and you’re not yet thirty. Would you consult a lawyer?  Too late for that now.  See a therapist?  Been there, done that.  Write an original musical about your experiences on the divorce battlefield? Now THAT’s an idea!

Erin Kamler’s World Premiere Divorce! The Musical may well be the best therapy (and revenge) of all for the writer/composer—against former spouses who promised “Till death do us part” and the lawyers who turned lovers with a few axes to grind into out-and-out enemies.  

We first meet Penny and Rich Hughes on their wedding day, though by the time the show’s first song is over, the couple have removed their wedding rings, it’s four years later, and they’re in “Therapy.”  What happened to their joyous wedded bliss?  Simply put, one morning when “the fucking birds were singing,” Rich woke up and said to Penny, “I want a divorce.”  As their therapist warbles the refrain, “But how do you feel?”, we discover the reasons for their discord.  Rich “wanted a wife, not a greedy wannabe actress,” to which Penny replies, “This is all a joke, right?” and “What about the new sofa?”  “I gave you my life,” sings Penny. “You gave me nothing,” replies Rich. “I’m afraid that’s all we have time for today,” warbles their therapist.  And this session is over.

In “Half,” the first of Divorce! The Musical’s shifts between comedy and tragedy, the estranged couple sing emotionally about how they can “no longer be half lovers, half friends,” and then we’re back to comedy again as harried Sherman Oaks divorce attorney Lisa Groper answers Penny’s phone call with “Office of Lisa Groper. Do you have a prenup?”—important information to have when you’re asking for a divorce from a radiologist who’s also making big bucks as the consultant for the hit TV show Emergency Medical (and never delivered on the starring role he promised you on the show).  Meanwhile, Rich hires Beverly Hills barracuda Laureen Grub, who advises him that a simple “She wouldn’t have a baby,” won’t get him what he wants out of his divorce and soon has Rich proclaiming, “She used me … and smeared my professional name!”

As the dueling divorce lawyers exchange emails in “Lawyer Letters,” a David vs. Goliath battle develops between small-time Lisa and big-time Laureen.  On his attorney’s advice, Rich removes everything from their home, even their “special Japanese toilet seat,” leaving Penny with an empty house and Rich with a whole lot of furniture and nowhere to put it—and this is only the beginning of their divorce wars.

“Rebound Sex” explores the singles bar hell of post-breakup dating, “There Were Good Things” allows Penny and Rich to (briefly) recall what their marriage was once like, and “Best Friends” has upscale Laureen (“I dress in Armani and shop on Rodeo Drive”) giving “how to” advice to downscale Lisa (“I wear polyester blends and shop at Ross Dress For Less”). 

Director Rick Sparks has proven himself one of our top comedy directors with shows like Dead Bride Running and Twentieth Century. Here he does it again—as well as staging the snappy musical numbers, which include a pair of tangos as well as some jazz and ballet-inspired moves—all executed to perfection by his stellar cast.

As Penny, Lowe Taylor (The Marvelous Wonderettes) finally gets the chance to create a lead role in a brand new musical and she is, as ever, a stunner and a dazzler. A redheaded beauty with comic gifts reminiscent of another redhead named Lucy, Taylor sings exquisitely, acts with real feeling, and dances a great tango. That is to say, she is the very definition of a triple-threat.

Matching Taylor every step of the way is Rick Segall (Rich), whose career dates back to his appearances as a 4-year-old regular on The Partridge Family in the role of Ricky Stevens. The rare child actor to mature into an honest-to-goodness leading man, the dark, handsome Segall (another triple-threat) has such great chemistry with Taylor that one can’t help hoping they’ll find a way to patch things up. (But don’t hold your breath.)

Sensational as the two leads are, it’s the so-called supporting players who get the standout roles here, beginning with Leslie Stevens as Lisa Groper. A gorgeous leggy dancer in numerous recent big stage L.A. musicals, Stevens gets the chance here to show what a scene-stealer she can be, whether trying in vain to quit smoking with The Patch or registering pained shock upon discovering a photo of her ex on her desk (“He went off to Las Vegas with my sister!”). Gabrielle Wagner is a hoot as both the couple’s therapist (her “But how do you feel?” will stay with you long after the show is over) and as smart, sophisticated, snobby lawyer Laureen Grub. Gregory Franklin is sleaze personified as Penny’s multiple gold necklace-wearing blind date and the love child of Fred Astaire and Bob Barker as the singing/dancing host of the TV game show Divorce Court.  

Stevens and Franklin also appear as Rich’s ever-squabbling but still married parents, Annie and Don Hughes. Their “We Stuck It Out” is a hilarious look at how to stay married for 30+ years. (“We used to have sex every day. Now we just go out and have buffet.”)

Kamler’s lyrics are funny as all get-out (see above quote) and perceptive as well.  Since Divorce! The Musical is mostly sung-through, her book is primarily expressed through the songs, but tells a real story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  (This is most definitely not a revue.)  Her music is of the Michael John LaChiusa/Adam Guettel variety, and Jerry Herman fans may find the complexity and unpredictability of her melodies off-putting. But hers is a style and a score which grows on you if you let it.  Too bad there’s not a cast recording because these are songs that beg to be listened to more than once.

Adding to the musicality of the evening is the inestimable work of master musical director David O, who’s also responsible for the gorgeous arrangements—and plays piano in the super three-piece orchestra, which features Anthony Fanning on cello and Adrienne Geffen on woodwinds.

Technically the show is first-rate all the way.  Danny Cistone’s ultra-versatile set, Denitsa Bliznakova’s snazzy costumes, Jeremy Pivnick’s as always stunning lighting, and Cricket Myers’ good-as-it-gets sound design contribute greatly to the production’s success.

Divorce! The Musical may not be the happily-ever-after fairy tale dreamt of by young girls who read Brides, Elegant Bride, and Modern Bride, and plan their wedding from grade school on, but Saturday’s opening night ended on just such a note, as producer Rick Culbertson proposed to girlfriend Kamler just after his cast took their bows.  (She said “Yes!”) Though future audiences won’t get the thrill of such a moment, they will be treated to a subversively fun (and music-filled) ninety minutes, and what better way is there for a night at the theater to end happily?

Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 

–Steven Stanley
February 14, 2009
                                               Photos: Craig Schwartz

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