Opening this week in the intimate environment of Trafalgar Studios 2, Vanities: The Musical shows the changing relationships between three friends over the course of high school, college & adulthood. It is based on the play of the same name, making its European première following several runs in America (including Off-Broadway).
Kathy, Mary & Joanne are growing up in Dallas, thinking the only important things in life are having a boyfriend and being popular – so much so, that when the news of JFK’s assassination is reported, all they’re worried about is whether that evening’s football game will still go ahead, as they are cheerleaders for the school team. They stick together at college, ending up at the same sorority, but once they enter the real world they start to drift apart. By the end they are reunited, and somehow become best friends once again.
The source material was written in the seventies and, despite the musical being developed this century, it doesn’t seem to have translated very well. It is hard to know whether the show is mainly supposed to be a bit of fun, or if we should be taking a serious message from it. If it’s the former then it just about works, mostly in the first half, with the sixties girl group-style numbers and the three girls having the time of their lives. If it’s the latter… The more serious parts are quite clichéd and seem to revolve around the friends’ constant need for a man – these characters are not role models, nor are they a proper cautionary tale (thanks to the sugar-coated ending). It is the kind of confusion that I’ve come to expect from a Racky Plews directed production.
David Kirshenbaum’s score is immediately forgettable, with a dearth of highlights; Joanne’s The Same Old Music by far the most entertaining of all the songs. I would also question the decision to use the close surroundings of Studio 2 with three actresses belting out number after number – it does get too loud at times. The refrain that repeats at the beginning of each act, where the girls take turns to name different fashion brands, is grating. Obviously there is a practical element to the length of the scene transitions and the repetition of the tune, but it does take too long – often leaving the audience watching the cast moving boxes around or staring at an empty stage while they change their costumes. It feels like there is scope for them to tighten this up and potentially run it straight through, without an interval. The set design (Andrew Riley) works best in the first two acts as the high school & college rooms, although the amount of mirrors can be quite distracting.
With the credits to the cast of three’s names, you can rest assured that the performance side of things is well taken care of. Lauren Samuels comes into her own in the third act, in particular, where Mary has finally found a direction that she wants to take in life. Ashleigh Gray (Kathy) is ideally suited to tugging on the audience’s heartstrings with a fair few emotional numbers.
For me, Lizzy Connolly steals the show. Joanne is quite ditzy, and only ever has one dream: to be a wife & mother. This wish is granted, however a revelation later on forces her to question whether she should stick with it. Connolly is a hugely entertaining personality, and brings a full range of hilarious facial expressions & expert comic timing to the role.
My verdict? Vanities by name, vanity by nature – it’s enjoyable enough, in places, but you can’t help but feel the material is a waste of three high-calibre leading ladies.
Vanities: The Musical runs at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 1 October 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office.