Home / Theatre Review (Pasadena): Vanities – A New Musical by Jack Heifner and David Kirshenbaum at the Pasadena Playhouse

Theatre Review (Pasadena): Vanities – A New Musical by Jack Heifner and David Kirshenbaum at the Pasadena Playhouse

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Back in 1976, a small play called Vanities by Jack Heifner opened at the Chelsea Theatre Off Broadway. Directed by a remarkable young director, Garland Wright, who later became Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, it eventually played all over America in every regional, amateur and high school theater. The cast consisted of Susan Merson, Jane Galloway and a brilliant young Kathy Bates. 32 years later this gem has been turned into the delightful Vanities – A New Musical, now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse.

The show traces the story of three Texas girls in the 60s as they grow and change through life together, from high school ”best friends” to mature women with very separate lives. The plot line is simple: they are teenagers together, go to college together, go through a difficult time together when their life paths are so different they seem to have nothing more in common, and are brought together again in time of tragedy. This plot, though simple and now perhaps a bit obvious, still holds hidden depth and truthfulness.

The three actresses involved are quite talented and have great acting and singing skills. Lauren Kennedy plays the lanky, sexy rebel Mary. I had seen her in London in Trevor Nunn’s revival of South Pacific and have always remembered her shining talent. She doesn’t disappoint here. Sarah Stiles plays Joanne, the girl and then woman whose journey is to find herself and discover that she doesn’t have to plan her life and make lists, but can just live each day and be happy as a single woman. Ms. Stiles has a powerful voice that ranges from a legit to an operatic tone. Annaliese Van Der Pol plays Kathy, who never seems to change until she discovers her husband has been unfaithful. Up until then she has been a typical, though a bit clichéd, suburban housewife content to stay at home and be a mother, wife, and homemaker. Her character gets the most laughs, and Ms. Van Der Pol does a terrific drunk scene.

The more than serviceable music is by David Kirshenbaum. While none of the songs leap from the stage to become potential classics, the music is still very catchy and hummable. Even more importantly, it truly captures the spirit of Heifner’s play. The lyrics are funny and very fitting for each character.

Judith Ivey directs with a sure hand and very creative staging, effortlessly guiding the play from dialogue to musical number and back again. My only qualm is that the piece seems dated. When it first opened, the resonance of the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War were still very fresh in our consciousness. People were undergoing vast changes in their worldview. Americans felt less secure and less sure of their national character. This is still true today but for different reasons. Today there is a real despair about where our country is going, the states are divided between red and blue, and politics has become really ugly.

Vanities – A New Musical offers a nice nostalgic respite from all this, but fails to be completely relevant. Nevertheless if you want a tuneful and enjoyable evening in the theatre and would like to enjoy the work of some talented women performers, head to the Pasadena Playhouse where Vanities – A New Musical plays until September 28th.

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About Robert Machray

  • Sue McRae

    I wish I could be as enthusiastic, but then I disliked the London South Pacific from beginning to end and love the one currently in New York. I found Vanities quite shallow and a disappointment, and the acting, with the exception of Ms. Stiles, not very good. The laughs didn’t seem to land. I really can’t see this running on Broadway and am surprised that it’s headed there. I hope it does run for the sake of the cast and crew. I may not have been thrilled, but they certainly are a hard-working and energetic group of people, and perhaps this show can find an audience.

  • Mark

    The author should realize that it undercuts his credibility if he gets the names of the characters wrong – he has confused Joanne with Kathy, and does both Ms. Van der Pol and Ms. Stiles a disservice.