But I Didn’t Like The Cheerleaders When I Was In High School

Last night, our theatregoing started back up with a visit to the Pasadena Playhouse to see their production of “Vanities: A New Musical” (official page). Vanities is a Broadway-bound (opening around February 2009) musical based on the 1976 Jack Heifner play of the same name.

Vanities tells the story of three Texas girls through a series of four snapshots of their lives. The first three were in the original play; the last was added for the musical. The first scene is in 1963, when the girls are cheerleaders preparing and organizing for the big high-school football game and pep rally. It is here we first learn the characters of the girls. Mary (Lauren Kennedy) is the wild one of the group. Kathy (Anneliese Van Der Pol) is the great organizer, the one who plans the best parties and is captain of the cheerleading squad. Joanne (Sarah Stiles) is the good girl: saving herself for marriage and her high school sweetheart. We also learn that these girls are fast friends. The second scene moves us forward to 1968: the girls are graduating college and planning their last semester at KKΓ. Mary (who was evidently a swinger on the pill in college) is going to Europe to experience life (and get away from her drunk mother). Joanne is getting married to her high-school boyfriend Ted, and Kathy is still trying to decide what to do with a degree in Physical Education, as well as figuring out how to deal with a broken heart. The next scene (which was the last in the play) takes place eight years later (1974) in a penthouse apartment in New York. Mary is back from Europe, running an erotic art gallery, still wild and free. Joanne is happy with her married life and children… on the surface. Kathy has given up teaching PE, and is living the life of leasure in the penthouse apartment in NYC. But this last scene shows there’s more to the story, as Kathy is a “kept woman” (the implication being it is Joanne’s hubby), and Mary has been having affairs with the same husband. The last scene, added for the musical, takes place almost 15 years (1990) later at the funeral for Mary’s mother. Still fast friends, we see how life as changed for these women: Mary is about to get married; Joanne is happy with her second husband; and Kathy is writing books, still searching for the meaning of life in Idaho.

The story is a good one: there is growth in the characters, and you do grow to like them. I think the show’s structure and length (under 2 hours, no intermission) works well for a theatre the size of a Pasadena Playhouse (under 1,000 seats). For a Broadway house, I’m less sure. I think the scenes need to be expanded slightly to permit an act break between college and the remainder of their lives, and there need to be some additional numbers in the last scene showing character growth of the characters, including some high energy number as in the first act. Note that the show already contains 13 numbers (music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum), with the bulk being in the early scenes (scene 1: 3; scene 2: 4; scene 3: 3; scene 4: 1). It also evidently had an intermission at one point.

One thing that shouldn’t change is the acting talent. Lauren Kennedy is a remarkable Mary: she conveys wild and free, and I can see her number “Fly Into The Future” becoming a classic song in her repertoire. Anneliese Van Der Pol breaks out of her Disney background as Kathy, the party organizer (with her chicken wire and newspaper), trying to find her life. She also is an extremely strong singer and great actress; I particularly liked her number “Cut Boys with Short Haircuts”. Lastly, Sarah Stiles is entrancing as Joanne, the virginal small-town girl marrying her high-school beau… who finds out that the facade isn’t what it is made out to be. Her signature song, “The Same Old Music”, truly showcases how she is just happy with her career goal of wife. All are great, all are strong singers and actresses, and all make the show (and have a clear friendship). Oh, and all of them are members of æ Actors Equity.

Technically, the show is amazing, perhaps because all characters are on stage at all times, including for 95% of the costume changes. The scenic design by Anna Louizos has three main vanities on the stages that rotate for different purposes, a wooden backdrop with panels that illustrate different scenes and permitting a change from a high school gym to a fancy penthouse apartment. There are also lights the drop down to create the mood, as well as the normal theatrical use of lights (the lighting design was by Paul Miller). The costumes (Joseph G. Aulisi, costume designer) and wigs (Josh Marquette) do a remarkable job of conveying the sense of time and personality, as well as adapting to the constant on-stage changing. Sound design was by Tony Meola and was quite good, although a few times I lost the illusion that the sound was coming from the actresses (I should note that it appears the Playhouse has a new speaker system). You can learn a bit more about the sound work in Vanities from Mr. Meola’s Downstage Center podcast.

With respect to program management: The production was directed by Judith Ivey, with musical staging by Dan Knechtges. Orchestrations were by Lynne Shankel, with musical direction and vocal arrangements by Carmel Dean (who also served as conductor for the 8 piece band). Richard Roland was the associate director. The Production Stage Manager was Pat Sosnow assisted by Lea Chazin. The Pasadena Playhouse is under the artistic direction of Sheldon Epps; Brian Colburn serves as Managing Director (although he is leaving soon); and Tom Ware is Producing Director.

ETA: nsshere’s review of the production is here.

For a video interview with some of the Vanities: A New Musical cast, click here. There is also a good interview with the three actresses in Episode 213 of Broadway Bullet, which includes some snippets of the music. Vanities: A New Musical continues at the Pasadena Playhouse until September 28, 2008.

As for us, I said this was the start of another theatre string of shows. Next Sunday (9/28 @ 1pm) we see another Broadway-bound musical: “9 to 5: The Musical” at the Ahamanson Theatre. The following Sunday (10/5 @ 2pm) is “Of Mice and Men” at Repertory East Playhouse in Saugus. The next weekend is currently open, for I thought I was going to an event at camp. Sunday October 12 (2pm) brings “Kiss of the Spider Woman” at the Havok Theatre (Nick DeGruccio, Artistic Director). The next weekend is “The King and I at Cabrillo Music Theatre (I don’t know if youarebonfante is managing the production). The following two weekends are open, the latter originally for nsshere’s birthday. The weekend after that (11/15 @ 8pm) is “The Lady With All The Answers” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Still to be ticketed is “Spring Awakening” at the Ahmanson (HotTix go on sale 10/8 — I’ll try for 11/16 @ 1pm should just be going on sale — I’ll call today for 11/23). Another show of interest is “Blood Brothers – The Musical” (Goldstar Link) at the Whitefire Theatre (which runs through November 23 — 11/2 @ 3pm is a possibility, but we need to see when greenscar is going, so I’ll have to double-book a weekend). Lastly, I need to remember to explore tickets for “I Love My Wife (Reprise), which only runs 12/2-12/14 — right around the dates of ACSAC.