New musicals these days are more gossiped about before they open than reviewed all that fairly when they do. The saga surrounding Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is an extreme example of this not-so-new phenomenon, but the delightful, spirited adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1987 post-Franco Madrid movie, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, is a fairly typical case of no sooner “bienvenida” than “hasta la vista.”
Of all Almodóvar’s wonderful films, this one combines most brilliantly a sense of magic realism, sexual liberation and farcical mayhem, a mix I never expected to see captured, or interpreted, as well as it is in Bartlett Sher’s ingenious, colorful and always engaging production for Lincoln Center camping out with their subscribers at the Belasco.
The sets by Michael Yeargan (with projections by Sven Ortel and aerial design by The Sky Box), capture not only the hectic mood of the city, and the frantic street motion, of Danny Burstein’s solicitous cab driver, but actually work double as pictorial treats and descriptive momentum to the characters' moods, spats and crises.
The detailed gazpacho recipe on the front cloth is a taster for a spicy plot, organized closely by book writer Jeffrey Lane around Almodóvar’s script. Actress and voice-over artist Pepa has been left by her lover, Ivan, who is being divorced (after a 19-year trial separation) by his wife, Lucia, whose pampered son suddenly discovers his inner libido with a model, Candela, Pepa’s best friend, while failing to match up to his girlfriend, Marisa.
Don’t worry, it’s not hard to follow, as the action has plenty of air to breathe and a roster of beguiling, Hispanic songs by David Yazbek (composer of two Tony-laden Broadway scores for The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) that keep you on your toes and never wallow. Not even “Invisible,” Patti LuPone’s big, brassy courtroom number for Lucia, the rubbed-out married plaintiff, loses its grip on the plot.
LuPone is on scintillating form here, finding a perfect vehicle (apart from the taxi) for her own brand of idiosyncratic diva desperation, but she shares all sorts of honors with the hilarious Laura Benanti as the model, Brian Stokes Mitchell as the adulterous heel, charming veteran Mary Beth Peil as the concierge and Nikka Graff Lanzarone as the son’s girlfriend.
Taking the palm, though, and setting the perfect tone of acidulous, vengeful sexuality, is Sherie Rene Scott as Pepa (the great Carmen Maura role in the movie), shaking her red hair in best new Spanish woman mode and even carrying off a regretful, insinuating song while setting fire to her bed and sharing the toxic fumes with a momentarily discombobulated audience (the elderly couple in front of me thought they should call the fire department).
At this point, I really did think the musical was too clever, and perhaps too European, for Broadway audiences. It’s so witty and unexpected, in fact, that the audience I was in forgot to give the show a standing ovation (the four ladies next to me forgot to come back after the interval). But if you start thinking Sondheim’s Company with tapas, tantrums and toreros, you edge towards the sort of musical theatre this is.
Almovódar has participated in, and approved, the musical, acknowledging that his movie “has a theatrical structure that imitates so many American comedies, which, in turn, were based on French boulevard theater plays.” It’s the great achievement of Lane, Yazbek and Sher that they have unlocked this theatrical derivation and given it a new, imaginative, highly entertaining lease of life. The final “shot” of the ladies bouncing on suspended bungee loops will stay with me long after the music fades.