The most startling thing about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown — the ambitious, addled, oddly enervated new musical from composer-lyricist David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and director Bartlett Sher (South Pacific) — is how tantalizingly close it comes to being a perfectly solid show. Certainly, it benefits from source-material that’s practically a musical already: filmmaker/collagist Pedro Almodóvar’s gaudy romp through liberated Madrid and the delicious, stinging thrills of modern heartbreak (“modern” being 1987, where Sher and librettist Jeffrey Lane have wisely chosen to fix the story’s time period).
Borrowing swatches from Almodóvar, the design scheme takes primary colors to the razor’s edge of migraine, yet leaves a warm afterimage. Yazbek’s endlessly reticulating rhymes and mamboid musical textures occasionally coalesce into not-awful songs — songs that are often vaguely reminiscent of other, better songs, but never unpleasantly so. Finally, Women brings together some of the most engaging theatrical talents of our time: Sherie Rene Scott as the jilted actress Pepa, Laura Benanti as her ditzy model pal, Candela, and Patti Lupone as archetypal first wife Lucia, the lovelorn, leopard-print Fury who backs up her nostalgia with hot lead.
So why, then, do we feel this superbly pedigreed show flapping so hard just to keep itself a few inches aloft? “Tell me, when did the wires get crossed,” croons Iván (Brian Stokes Mitchell, preening on cue), the male siren at the root of all this female trouble. “Tell me where the connection was lost. / Tell me how I got tumbled and tossed / and tangled up.” Gracias, Stokes, you may have hit on it: Despite double helpings of hysteria and a plot that purees melodrama, telenovela, and Hitchcock, there really are no tangles in Women, no serious challenges to its medium-tempo savoir faire. It’s an exercise in keeping itself together, as if its whole right-hand-red-left-hand-blue balancing act would collapse at the smallest eruption of unscheduled id.
First off, there seems to be some internal disagreement on the relative earthiness of this show. We open with “Madrid,” an ode to the sun-kissed backsplash of our tale. Our cab-driving narrator (Danny Burstein) gets right to the yoni of the matter, equating the city with Almodóvar’s patron goddess. “Madrid, my mama, my creator / She might make me crazy but I’m not gonna fight her / I love her madly even when I hate her.” And then, the coup de grace: “Push me out, I’ll just crawl back up inside her.” Okay now! Yazbek’s been rightly praised for his high-wire rhyme runs, but that line feels like it took a gallon of Pitocin to pop out. Such sweaty anatomical ardor feels a little unearned so early in the evening, and the affable, normally game Burstein looks visibly uncomfortable singing it. But Yazbeck’s not finished: “'Cause maybe life is hard and maybe love is fickle / It’s all a steady trickle from her umbilical.” Golly. There are internal rhymes, and then there are internal rhymes. We’ve only just finished the opening number, and already, we’re silently praying for somebody to cut the cord.
But just as we hunker down for a pungent night, Sher seems to scent chaos on the wind: Soon, a kind of crackdown is in effect. This show has a lot of moving parts, human and mechanical (a taxicab is practically its own character), and, perhaps to compensate, Sher’s directorial grip feels a tad more pre-Franco than post. Every transition, scene change, and stage picture is a perfect Mondrian, so ruthlessly rectilinear, it’s almost Tron-drian. Michael Yeargan’s sets are gorgeous, and licked to a candy sheen by Brian MacDevitt’s Hayden Planetarium of a lighting design, but the Tetris-like maneuvering it takes to lock them into position can be dizzying. Just keeping this machine clicking along seems to be absorbing most of Sher’s attention: He buries a lot of big moments, from entrances to song cues to jokes. There’s just no time for a breakdown, in the midst of all this clockwork — and a show about liberation and the lovely, bloody messes it makes becomes a study in repression.
The actors feel it, too, and curl into themselves accordingly. Scott’s Pepa is rapturously heartbroken and sells Yazbek’s swelling torch song “Lie to Me” with eyes and soul abrim. Scott’s voice contains real ache, actual breath — my seatmate said, “You can always hear the effort,” and meant it as a compliment. But overall, there’s more steely-eyed resolve to Pepa than Valium-enabled acting out. Even her sudden rages feel considered. Dumped by Iván and harried by his ex, she certainly deserves our sympathy; she just doesn’t seem to need it much. Speaking of that ex: Lupone ought to be the feathered centerpiece in the middle of this diva smorgasbord. But her simmering Lucia is so contained, so dangerously bottled and theatrically muted, she barely registers — neither the peril nor the comedy of her blood-vendetta against her former spouse and his many lovers manages to bleed through. Early American Idol pinup-tenor Justin Guarini feels a bit too safe to play the restless nebbish Carlos (the nerd-hunk role originated onscreen by Antonio Banderas), but he executes adequately and sings well. Mostly, everyone seems to be focusing on their rather unfortunate my-name-is-Inigo-Montoya accents, with particular emphasis on the delightful Andalusian lisp: As far as Sher and, apparently, Broadway audiences are concerned, the cast’s pronunciation of “gathpacho” is the joke that keeps on giving.
The show has a wild card, though, and it’s Laura Benanti as Candela, Pepa’s bubbleheaded, man-eating pal. While Pepa tries to unravel Iván’s web of deceit and contemplate life beyond him, Candela has a more immediate problem: Her latest fling is a terrorist who’s planning an attack that very day. Benanti, cantering around in short-shorts and eight-inch heels, converts a great clown role into nothing less than the life blood of the production. Her yammering showstopper — where she leaves a breathless flotilla of messages on Pepa’s answering machine — is Women’s high point, and one of the only points where the show gets out of its own way and allows its substantial inner energies to come to the fore.
Soon enough, the pieces shift again, and we’re on to the next stringent staging sequence, the next roaring run of rhymes, the next raster of sets and projections: Tab A into Slot B. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown isn’t entirely hopeless or joyless. It’s simply suffering from too much therapy. Every step it takes is as deliberate and serious as a recovering drunk’s. That leaves us in rather forced territory and far from the verge of anything. The secret to great gathpacho, Pepa tells us, is in how you mix it. Here, we can see the promise of madness, ecstasy, and plain old fun floating around in the blender. It's just all settled to the bottom.