I Wish This Show Was About You, or Anyone Else, Really
Now at the ACT is the Northwest premiere of Vanities: A New Musical (though May 1 in the Falls Theatre). With strong vocals as the sole highlight, this musical is a new co-production between 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre, and has an epic two-month run to accommodate both 5th Ave and ACT patrons as part of each organization’s subscription season.
Vanities is a new musical is based on the original play by Jack Heifner. The play premiered in 1976 for a multi-year Off-Broadway run and soon became one of the most produced plays in regional theatre.
It follows the lives of three high school girls from Texas in the early ’60s as they move on to college together, live separate lives in New York in the mid-’70s, and finally reconnect in the early ’80s. Though their lives, Vanities explores the themes of liberation, social expectations, marriage, the search for meaning and forgiveness.
We meet Kathy (Cayman Ilika) Joanne (Jennifer Sue Johnson) and Mary (Billie Wildrick), three mean-girl-ish cheerleaders in a small town in Texas on November 22, 1963 (hmmm…that date sounds familiar) who imagine what life has in store for them (“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”). Their wishes range from the domestic (“I want to bake a casserole,” sings Joanne) to the domestic (“I want to cook but never clean,” sings Mary).
Kathy, the party organizer, Joanne, the future homemaker, and Mary, the girl most likely to go all the way, operate with an entitled self-absorption that does nothing to endear us to them. “I can’t imagine not being popular all my life through,” is the line that sums up their perspective. When we see them again in college, they seem to settle into their archetypes, peaking when we see them in 1974 for a reunion in NYC: Joanne is a family-obsessed suburban housewife, Kathy is single and “searching for meaning,” and Mary is a promiscuous, erotic art gallery owner. So much for the appeal of archetypes: from beginning to end, I didn’t care about any of them.
The singing in this production is strong, led by Cayman Ilika. She has a powerful and nuanced voice with just the right amount of twang for the character. Billie Wildrick steals the show with her vampy Mary, especially during the wah-infused “Fly Into the Future.” Wildrick is charismatic, um, limber, and seems to specialize and excel in these juicy kinds of roles. Jennifer Sue Johnson has a good voice and excellent comedic timing.
The music (by David Kirshenbaum, who also wrote the lyrics) gives nods to music of the various periods of the musical, coming very close to Burt Bacharach and Hal David at times. But then again, if I wrote a musical about the early ’90s, I suppose I’d include a song that sounds a lot like “Smells Like Teen Spirit.
For the mostly older, mostly female crowd that was in the audience for the show I attended, Vanities might be a nostalgic look at how far they have come since the 1960s–in their own expectations and society’s expectations of them. Perhaps when it first came out as a play (again, that was 1976), this story was more fresh. But we’ve seen these characters so many times since–better illustrated–and it seemed to me these three characters had nothing to offer the actresses playing them.