I had high expectations when I walked into ACT’s Falls Theater to see the new, revised musical production of Vanities. The straight play on which the show is based was a huge off-Broadway success from 1976-80 and has since been staged with equal acclaim in cities throughout the U.S. and the world.
My anticipation was heightened when I noticed one of the permanent set panels showing a high schooler with the same flip hairstyle I sported in my senior yearbook photo. The coming-of-age story of three Texas women living through the social and cultural changes of the '60’s and '70’s has clearly touched a chord among a very wide audience, and it seemed that this production was aimed squarely at me.
It was, therefore, with great disappointment that I watched as the script veered into stereotypes that bear little relationship to the cohort of women I have known and which even the three captivating actors — Cayman Ilika, Jennifer Sue Johnson and Billie Wildrick — could not turn into real, sympathetic individuals. Their three characters — the bubblehead Kathy, controlling Joanne, and free spirit Mary — come straight from "Sex and the City" (Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha, respectively) and I found myself annoyed by their superficiality, most notably in the first scene, which takes place when the girls are high-school cheerleaders.
This deficit is truly a shame since Ilika, Johnson, and Wildrick are among the most charismatic female actors on the Seattle scene today with singing voices as strong as their acting skills.
There are, to be sure, many delightful aspects of this production, which had its beginnings in 2006 when the team of Jack Heifner and David Kirshenbaum created their first musical version of Heifner’s original play. The musical played at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto and the Pasadena Playhouse before heading to New York’s Second Stage Theatre. Heifner and Kirshenbaum revised the show for this version, a co-production of The 5th Avenue and ACT theatres.
Despite the deficits of this particular show, it is exciting to see collaboration between two of our best local theater companies. This isn't the first time they have worked together; that was for a 2001 production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, which was staged at the 5th with ACT assisting on sets, costumes and props.
The 5th Avenue's David Armstrong, who had directed Vanities in college, first proposed this collaboration 2009, and the two theaters shared creative and logistical control. The partnership has enabled a longer run (12 weeks rather than the five that is typical in Seattle). And the smaller-scale production would get lost in the large 5th Avenue Theatre; it's more suitable for ACT’s 400-seat Falls Theatre.
“It has always been an objective to include musical theater in our building and as part of our seasons,” said Kurt Beattie, ACT’s artistic director. “This collaboration provides both organizations room to grow aesthetically and artistically. The 5th brings its considerable expertise in musicals, while our theater delivers intimate theater experience with an eye to the contemporary condition.”
Armstrong brings his signature flair for high style to the directing, particularly by having the three actors update their physical appearance on set as the decades pass. The musical direction of The 5th’s Ian Eisendrath sparkles and the rest of the production team — set designer Matthew Smucker, costume designer Catherine Hunt and lighting designer Tom Sturge from ACT, and sound designer Ken Travis from The 5th — have seamlessly integrated their talents into a deceptively simple overall production design.
But the musical score, which is hummable but eminently forgettable, is weak. And core problems with the script undermine the skill of the acting and production team. These include, apart from the stereotypes and superficiality, an unclear point of view and a lack of balance among the three characters. Both Joanne and Mary are reasonably well fleshed-out, but Kathy’s part is underwritten; the last two scenes, which take place approximately 10 years after high school and then some years later, leave many questions unanswered about how and why her life has progressed as it has.
The end result is that this Vanities leaves us with one big question: What is this show about? Is it an affirmation of female friendship that endures despite the ups and downs of life, a voyage of self-discovery, an exploration of the changing role of women and the toll those changes have taken on individual lives? It could be about all of this, and more, but should have a clear point rather than leave us scratching our heads.
If you go: "Vanities: A New Musical," through May 1 at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), 700 Union St., Seattle, in collaboration with 5th Avenue Theatre. Tickets start at $55 and are available at both theater's box offices, by phone 206-292-7676), or online at acttheatre.org or 5thavenue.org.