Vanities: A New Musical, now on stage at ACT Theatre, follows three women through the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, from their cheerleading days at a Texas high school to sorority sisterhood at an unnamed college, and then to a penthouse apartment in Manhattan. There they reunite—it is unclear why—and end up exploring the myriad reasons why one’s high school friends are not one’s adult friends.
Coproduced by 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT, with 5th Ave’s David Armstrong at the helm, the new production is a musical remake of the original, songless Vanities—a 1976 off-Broadway comedy by Jack Heifner. The original play was a major commercial success, and for a time the most-produced play in the world. But critics never liked it, citing shallow characters, ill-devised plotting, and general fluffiness. Thirty-five years later, matters have not improved much.
From the moment we first meet the three women, it is obvious we have seen them many times before. There is clipboard-carrying control freak Kathy (Cayman Ilika), tiny, rule-abiding Joanne (Jennifer Sue Johnson), and Mary (Billie Wildrick), the blond slutty one. Seems there always has to be a slutty one. Songs are sung, and then comes an announcement over the loud speaker that the president has been shot. We in the audience—those of us not hiding lobotomy scars under our combovers, anyway—understand that it is President Kennedy who’s been shot. But not Joanne: “The president of the student council has been shot?” For such obtuseness to be charming, the audience needs to like Joanne, yet we have been given no reason to do so. Before we have time to puzzle over this, it’s off to college, where Kathy’s boyfriend has just dumped her.
But who the hell, I found myself asking as the play skidded into Act Two, is Kathy? Ilika is a striking woman with a strong set of pipes, but other than the consistency in character name, I have no reason to believe she was portraying the same person from act to act. Utterly unyouthful, but at least present, in her portrayal of high school Kathy, she seems to slowly evaporate as the play goes on. At the Manhattan penthouse where she lives in Act Three—a paid woman, not working—we are meant to understand she seeks to find herself via…meditation? (Literal) star-gazing on the veranda? Something like that. It’s inscrutable writing, and Ilika, despite her talents, seems lost in its vagaries. Johnson’s Joanne can be funny—she earns laughs when she develops a stumbling, champagne-induced honesty in the third act—but she veers too clunkily between rigidity and cartoonishness to achieve anything meaningful.
And so it is that Wildrick-as-Mary yoinks the show from her castmates. In a second-act solo, she nimbly converts the Steve Miller Band-ish “Fly Into the Future” into something that feels honest—a small-town woman escaping claustrophobic circumstances and a toxic family situation—despite an absurd red vinyl get-up that appears to have been plucked from the costume archives of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. By the time we get to Manhattan, Wildrick has conjured, from some place far outside this production, a blistering aura of despair around her character’s femme fatale bravado. She stomps around the penthouse porch in stiletto heels, commanding the audience to drink her poison cocktail of glamour and pain.
It’s not quite enough to save the play, but I’ll certainly buy tickets to whatever Wildrick does next.
Vanities: A New Musical is at ACT Theatre through May 1.