The University Theatre’s production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at WMU is a mad comedic romp filled with dynamic movement, energetic songs, and lively dance numbers. This new musical focuses on the topsy-turvy lives of 4 women seeking love, sex, and revenge in late 20th century Madrid.
Director Jay Berkow’s creative staging and his cast’s rapid-fire overlapping dialogue and lyrics bring Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 movie to life on the stage of the Williams Theatre. Berkow’s cinematic orchestration of lighting, music, and stage composition produces mercurial shifts in the location, tone, and rhythm of the action.
Begin with taxi driver and narrator Kobe Brown, who greets the audience with the promise that Madrid is a city in constant flux where souls can reborn every morning. With an easy-going street-savvy manner he captures our attention, introduces us to flamboyant characters, and convinces us that we might want to stick around.
We’re right to do so. Each of the many fast-paced scenes possesses its own backstory and is charged with irony and frenetic activity.
An early example is a recording session with Pepa, an actress played by Emily Sherman, who laments the melodrama of her relationship. She does so while dubbing vocals for two film actors portraying an overly sincere melodramatic love scene of their own.
Sherman’s poignant and powerful vocal “Lie to Me” is synched to a track recorded by her missing boyfriend. That love interest is Ivan, suavely portrayed by Jono Mammel as a Don Juan, with a collection of sunglasses which is exceeded only by his romantic liaisons.
The fast-paced action morphs into a cross-town taxi ride as four black chairs appear. Brown, our driver, skillfully dodges relentless urban traffic, created by running ensemble members who wave brightly colored paper, while he casually chats with passengers.
Cut to Pepa’s friend Candela, a slinky model rendered by Alyssa Meeuswen. She is simultaneously engaged in a day-long photo shoot around the city and an endless series of trivial phone conversations. Meeuswen presents a delightfully ditzy drama queen in search of the right man with “Model Behavior.”
On the other end of Ivan’s tangled web of relationships is his wigged-out domineering wife, Lucia. Madison Merlanti, vividly delivers a hard-charging search for Ivan, her husband on the lam. Her day in court is punctuated by the number “Invisible”, a humorous yet gut-wrenching testimony of a woman left behind.
If the show’s plot seems convoluted, it is. Even the characters lament the bewildering complexity of their lives as they sing “Tangled”, a song about overlapping relationships. The twisted storyline of “Women on the Verge” is really a celebration of the human heart’s resilience and ability to overcome the perfidious nature of romance.
Several standout numbers feature multiple lead characters supported by a colorful ensemble of singers and dancers. “On the Verge” provides a striking and energetic staccato ending to Act One.
The finale, “The View from Here”, is a beautiful harmonic transition out of the bedlam preceding it and a resolution of the lead characters search for fulfillment.
One could wish for a little less screech in the high-end pitch of some of the show’s dialogue. But then that’s the hysterical, shaky ground staked out by the “Nervous Breakdown” part of the title. And most of the time we’re only moments away from the next round of valium-laced gazpacho to take the edge off the characters if the mayhem gets to be too much or too shrill.
The production does succeed in filling the largely bare stage with Olivia Belfie’s choreography, Matthew A. Knewtson’s Lighting, Brent Decker’s music, and Zandra Siples’ costumes. The bare black platforms upstage that function as the stairs, roof and apartment balcony, however, could use a little more in the way of style and design.
Despite this most of what I witnessed on opening night will please and entertain audiences throughout the run of this very funny and delightful musical.