Well, the economy did these folks a favor. If Vanities had actually made it to Broadway, chances are it would have been a short-lived embarrassment, like Glory Days, or disappointment, like The Story of My Life. Instead, the show gets a one-month run at a non-profit theater, New York's Second Stage, the possibility of a cast album, and a shot at a life in regional productions. Because, despite a professional presentation and a perky, talented cast of three (Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles, and Anneliese Van Der Pol), Vanities is a musical that makes little lasting impression.
One of the show's key liabilities is its inoffensive but forgettable score by David Kirshenbaum (Summer of '42). It's hard to pin down exactly what's wrong with the score, because it's pleasant enough in performance. But the songs don't stick, either in terms of memorability or in serving a dramatic purpose. Part of the problem could be that the score only intermittently reflects the time period in which the scenes are set. It doesn't grow in its cultural influences as you might expect from a musical that spans the 1960s through the 1980s. There are some Burt Bacharach touches in some of the orchestrations during the '60s portion of the show, but after that the generic score becomes timeless, but not in a good way. It doesn't help that Kirshenbaum throws in such anachronisms as "living large" and "chatty Cathy" well before these terms came about.
Even worse, the songs don't tell the story, they stop it. Every number feels like a digression from the plot rather than something that enhances it. I'm not saying that Vanities shouldn't have been a musical, but the current score doesn't add much to the drama or to our understanding of these characters.
The score might have seemed less egregious had the surrounding text had greater depth. The main problem with Jack Heifner's book, which is based on his 1976 play of the same name, is that there really isn't any drama until about an hour into the show. Before that, we just see these three high school friends graduate, attend college, and head off into the world to inevitably and predictably grow apart. But when the drama finally comes, it's really too late for us to start caring. In the show's pivotal scene at a New York penthouse apartment, the girls finally have a knock-down drag-out fight, and things start to get interesting. But in the following scene, all is forgiven and we're forced to accept an artificially easy reconciliation. Then it's off to the final number, chockablock with platitudes, and the characters walk off into the sunset together. That's right: they literally walk off into the sunset. Oy.
The problems with the score and the book are probably so systemic that no director could have fixed them. Even so, Judith Ivey probably wasn't the right choice of director. There's a big difference between directing a previously existing show and steering a developing work towards a final product. There are some really terrific developmental directors (Hal Prince, James Lapine) and there are directors who work better on finished material (Walter Bobbie). I'm going to give Ivey the benefit of the doubt and assume that if she's ever going to be a great director, she might be better off in the latter category.
Vanities runs at the Second Stage until August 9th. I have a feeling that, should this production produce a cast album, the show will get a decent amount of play in regional theaters. If there's no CD, this is probably the last we'll see of Vanities.