The opening scene of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the new musical currently in performances at the Belasco Theater, is a confusing jumble of characters and scenes. Donned in bright, Technicolor-inspired costumes the actors walk or dance from one side of the stage to another. It’s never clear what this hodgepodge of people is supposed to represent, but one assumes it will be clarified soon after.
It isn’t. The confusion of the opening scene not only continues throughout the entire play, it increases, becoming even more chaotic as the show continues. With a book by Jeffrey Lane and songs by David Yazbek, the musical adaptation of the film by Pedro Almodovar is a scattered, frantic, and ultimately disappointing production that wastes the incredible talent of its star-studded cast.
Starring Sherie Rene Scott as Pepa, a woman whose long-time lover Ivan (a tragically underused Brian Stokes Mitchell) breaks up with her on her answering machine, Women on the Verge follows a group of people in Madrid, all of them extremely stressed due to romantic problems or lack thereof. There is Lucia (Patti LuPone, gamely making the best of what she has been given), Ivan’s ex-wife who is just released from a mental hospital and hell-bent on revenge. Then there is her son Carlos (Justin Guarini, making a respectable Broadway debut) and his uptight fiancé Paulina (de’Adre Aziza). And don’t forget Candela (a stunning Laura Benanti), Pepa’s hyperkinetic best friend who fears that her lover is a terrorist.
Many situations presented in the show are ripe for comedy and Benanti especially shines in a lengthy musical number in which she calls Pepa dozens of times, at one point lamenting that her modeling job has her “posing with a melon and a matador…some kind of metaphor.” But these characters are so underwritten and underdeveloped that it is impossible to consider them any more than passing entertainment. As Pepa, Scott inspires some sympathy from the audience, but the dashing Mitchell is given so little to work with as Ivan that he never comes across as more than a cad. Perhaps that was the intention? If so, it was a mistake because Pepa spends most of the show chasing Ivan, trying to get him back. Is it all a waste of time? And LuPone, undoubtedly one of the most famous actresses on Broadway, is only given two songs to sing and a few comedic one-liners here and there. She does what she can, and her second solo, “Invisible” is quite haunting and one of the few resonant moments in the show that lingers after the curtain falls.
Despite these moments, distraction is the theme of the night and it prevails regardless of how badly the cast tries to foil it. Even the sets seem uncertain and indecisive about what they’re supposed to do, with bright, bold colors that sometimes clash. The end of Act One, when the women are supposed to all be on the verge of snapping, presents the cast hanging from the stage on bright rubber bands. Such a literal and extreme presentation is unnecessary in any production, but especially in this one, which begs for understatement and subtlety. This cast deserved better.