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Vanities–The Musical

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 30, 2023

Amy Keum, Jade Jones, and Hayley Podschun
Photo by Carol Rosegg
As an Off-Broadway nonmusical, Vanities ran forever, opening in 1976 and closing after almost 1,800 performances. A look at three besties (one of whom was played by Kathy Bates) at the end of high school, the end of college, and the end of their 20s, Jack Heifner's play had big emotions, relatable situations, and a low budget. All the basics for a smart, touching little musical would appear to be there. So why does Vanities–The Musical, at the York, feel so vapidly pleasant, or pleasantly vapid?

It's been kicking around for almost 20 years and previously appeared Off-Broadway in 2009, so you'd think Heifner, adapting his own source material, and composer-lyricist David Kirshenbaum would have had time to iron the kinks out. They've done some good work: Heifner added a fourth section, set in 1990, to round out the original's story arc and provide a cheerier ending. Kirshenbaum's lyrics are solidly crafted in a surfacy way, and if he doesn't send you out humming, at least he means to. Yet there are inconsistencies in the characters, infelicities in the storytelling, and one head-scratcher of a James Morgan set to frame the whole thing.

It's all-white, a series of white vanities (get it?) with white chairs behind them, little white tables on the side, a chandelier, and a bare white upstage wall that pointlessly opens up for the finale. Plus several white mannequins, dressed or un-, to represent ... the trio's former selves? Their future selves? The tabulae rasae on which they'll paint their identities? Not clear, and less so when the three ladies dance with these dummies.

Flashback: It's 1963 and senior year for Joanne (Hayley Podschun), Mary (Jade Jones), and Kathy (Amy Keum), and they're gabbing about cheerleading, boyfriends, and, to a much lesser degree, what they plan to do with their lives. Joanne, a blonde with a prim little yellow hair ribbon, is the traditionalist, out to marry her longtime beau, move to the suburbs, and raise a family. Mary is the live wire, irreverent and sexually loose. And Kathy, well, Kathy's a mass of contradictions; it's not Keum's fault, it's the writing, but we never quite get a handle on her. An organizer, a list maker, as efficient as a mid-century miss can be, Kathy is also strangely unfocused, never sure what interests or motivates her. "My future's clear, so I'm aiming straight ahead," she sings, but that's not the case at all. Somehow she becomes a best-selling author, though nothing in her emotional fabric would suggest the basis for that.

Clearly, these are three very different young women, but they're all full of hope about the future, reflected in songs with titles like "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" and "I Can't Imagine" (being without you guys). At times they sing in counterpoint and, with Julian Evans's over-processed sound design and Deborah Abramson's over-miked five-piece ensemble, I guarantee you, you won't be able to make out a word. At other times, under Will Pomerantz's direction, when one character is soloing, the other two either dance non-contextually in the background (Shannon Lewis did the rambunctious choreography) or just stay still; both gambits are awkward. The 1963 section ends with, I'm not making this up, a joke about the JFK assassination.

On to 1968. And with all the opportunities for miniskirts and Peter Max colors, Barbara Erin Delo's costumes are no help; they're all-black, and only occasionally period-specific throughout. There's talk about Vietnam, whether the times they are a-changin' or not, and what Broadway score to feature in their concert (they settle, amusingly, on Hair–"it's about peace and love and sunshine!"). A dumped, despondent Kathy sings a lament about "Cute Boys with Short Haircuts"–short haircuts, in 1968?

Some troubling revelations about past histories and betrayals surface in 1974 at a tea-party reunion where Joanne gets drunk, then sobers up instantly, because she has another song to sing–one of several character reversals that don't make a whole lot of sense. The conflicts generated here are largely resolved in the 1990 add-on, where Jones, as Mary, has to do some genuine acting, and makes a very tidy job of it. They also have a clarion, characterful belt and can really move. Matron "Mama Morton," Effie Melody White, the King of Siam, I can't wait to see what Jones does next. Podschun's Joanne sings well and hits all the right notes of this rather annoying character, but there are only so many ways to portray a religious, self-centered, deeply conventional soul, and nothing Podschun does will surprise you.

In its girl-bonding giddiness and primitive stirrings of feminism, the original Vanities somewhat resembled a contemporary effort by Wendy Wasserstein, Uncommon Women and Others, only the latter was more consistent and dug deeper. Vanities–The Musical cobbles such themes together with reasonable dexterity and isn't a chore to sit through, but it simmers, simmers, simmers, never reaching a boil. Those themes may land more strongly with ex-sorority girls of a certain age than they did with this curmudgeon. You'll enjoy Kirshenbaum's pleasant melodies, perhaps identify with the uncomfortable pangs inherent in long-term friendships, and probably be mildly moved by the end. But Vanities–The Musical ends where it does only because it has no place else to go.

Vanities–The Musical
Through April 22, 2023
York Theatre Company
St. Jean Baptiste Church, 150 E. 76th St., New York NY
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