Take a Spanish cad, his lover, his vengeful ex-wife, an airhead fashion model, and a philosophical cab driver, and you have Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a musical written by Jeffrey Lane (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), who knows his way around romantic farce. The 2010 show was nominated for three Tonys in 2010 and although it didn’t win any, it did score Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Laura Benanti’s portrayal of Candela, the model. The show, which is based on a 1988 film by Pedro Almodovar, got mixed reviews for its confusing, disjointed story line, but whose chief attribute is its scintillating Spanish-tinged score, penned by David Yazbek, who worked with Lane on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The rarely revived show was performed last Sunday in a staged reading by Musical Theatre Guild at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.
Credit director Richard Israel for making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear by injecting some of MTG’s most accomplished actors in the production, led by the incredible Kim Huber as Pepa, the spurned voiceover actress who plots to use Valium-laced gazpacho to wreak her revenge on her lover Ivan, who has capriciously left her. Huber has a vulnerable likability that brings to mind Alice Ripley and has a wondrous voice. Her solos on “Lovesick” and “Island” were two of the musical highlights in a show in which musical highlights are desperately needed. The best number of all is the supercharged opener, “Madrid,” in which the nameless Spanish taxi driver (charismatically played by Travis Leland) introduces the characters in a way that is reminiscent of Usnavi’s opening number in In the Heights. This promising beginning soon devolves into a drawing room comedy that is as pointless as it is confusing. Still, we enjoy the performances of each of the actors, heightened by Israel’s whimsical, fast-moving direction.
Robert Yacko plays Ivan, the cad in question, a suave Ricardo Montalban type who doesn’t care who he hurts by his devil-may-care, love-’em-and-leave-’em lifestyle. Eileeen Barnett is a hoot as Lucia, his ex-wife, whose rage over being deserted led her to a stay in the funny farm and is now bent on revenge. Her shy son Carlos (a stammering Rodrigo Varandas) is engaged to his mousy fiancee Marisa (Tayler Mettra), who turns out to be the first, inadvertent casualty of Pepa’s gazpacho. Carlos, however, has the hots for Pepa’s BFF Candela, an eternal romantic who has fallen for a swarthy guy named Malik who just might be an international terrorist. “The minute I saw the grenade belt, I knew something was up,” she tells Pepa, one of the funniest lines in the show. As Candela, Nikka Graff Lanzarone, frantically calls Pepa (“Model Behavior”), leaving multiple messages sung in a rapid-fire manner that brings to mind Amy’s patter song “Getting Married Today” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
There are other moments in the show that stand out (Lucia declaring “Except for my sister I was an only child.”) but these are few and far between and a lot of the show is just pointless dashing back and forth. Without sets and minimal props (an aspect required when doing staged readings), Israel makes the most out of the least; the funniest gimmick was using pairs of rolling egg chairs to simulate taxicabs, pushed around the stage at lightning speed by ensemble members.
Corey Hirsch led the on-stage five piece band of keyboard, two guitars, saxophone doubling on flute, and drums while Leslie Stevens provided the mostly frantic choreography.