Opening Nights: Vanities

Boomer nostalgia and classic pop-craft.

The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT have joined forces to slather a fresh coat of varnish on Vanities, the '70s off-Broadway hit now revived as a musical. This time around, playwright Jack Heifner abridges his original text to make room for a host of musical numbers by composer David Kirshenbaum, sung girl-group style by a trio of talented co-stars: Cayman Ilika (as Kathy), Jennifer Sue Johnson (Joanne), and Billie Wildrick (Mary). It's a time capsule played straight, a shallow fantasia that suggests that with the right soundtrack, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Jane Fonda all could've been BFFs. Vanities: A New Musical is a coming-of-middle-age vignette parade that follows the three ingénues from high school into adulthood during the baby-boom years (the late '60s into the '80s). In words and music, it's one of those self-referential ruminations that has become inextricably attached to the counterculture generation. Where were you when President Kennedy was shot? What were you wearing and/or ingesting during the Summer of Love? Did you become sexually active because of The Pill, or did you save yourself for marriage? Writers have tilled this field so thoroughly over the past four decades that nowadays the answers bear all the dramatic heft of a census questionnaire. Only here the census is set to music, which provides the show's occasional charms. Kirshenbaum's melodies evoke classic Brill Building pop-craft, and several songs capture the boomer era much better than the hackneyed hairstyles and hippie clothes that send this show spiraling into dinner-theater territory. "Fly Into the Future," for example, has that ditzy "Up, Up, and Away" '60s vibe of vaulting into an unknowable adventure and expecting success through sheer optimism. It's so guileless that even Justin Bieber wouldn't touch it. Otherwise, though he's gained three decades of perspective, Heifner's script still regards the boomer era through a haze of nostalgia. His stick-figure characters barely scratch the surface of these women's liberation from Texas cheerleaders into adulthood, and his text is relentlessly unhip and superficial, without a trace of historical revisionism. During 100 minutes, his book dashes from Bye Bye Birdie to Hair and beyond, leaving the three stars to caulk the gaps with sincerity and hard work. Ultimately, this Vanities spans a river of time but never delves deep enough to make an original statement about the period or the women who lived through it. For better or worse, director David Armstrong has Kathy, Joanne, and Mary play their lives as afternoon soaps set to song—something like the reverie my sister drifts through while painting her face for a night on the town.

 
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