The original play from which this fine work stems was a hit on Broadway some forty years ago, and the musical version has been around for a decade. But neither has ever made an appearance in Europe before, and on this showing we have missed out on a major contribution to musical theatre literature. This show is a success at all levels, and deserves a transfer and a longer run than the month it currently enjoys in the Trafalgar Studios secondary space.
The narrative takes three Dallas-born women through the journey from high school to middle age and explores their personal growth and the changing nature of their friendship. The first of four acts begins on the day Kennedy is shot and the action follows them through sorority years to a New York apartment in the 1970s before concluding in bitter-sweet tones in a small-town Texas funeral parlour when they have reached 40. These are wonderfully detailed portraits of three highly contrasted women who are gloriously unprepared by their superficial education and formation for the huge changes in American life during the key decades of their lives. We start with a reflection in a dressing-table mirror and end up looking back at reflections down a hall of memories.
Vanities has all the ingredients a successful musical needs. The characters are well developed and their interplay credible. The dialogue is consistently sharp and tart, genuinely funny and engaging in its own right, and setting up excellent natural segues between words and music, thus justifying the medium. The music is cleverly contrived to echo stylistically the popular music of the time in which the scene is set – varying from close harmony singing in the 1960s through to solo songs that evokes Carole King and Sondheim at their most plangent and desolate. It is a good story, with some very fine comic and dramatic moments along the way, and it has larger social points to make too in a neatly non-didactic fashion.
Moreover, this production is exquisitely judged to bring out the best virtues of the small venue and the skilled players at its heart. With all the changes of costume, hair and timeframe, the set needed to be simple and concise. This is exactly what Andrew Riley provides with three cubicles, vanity sets and multiple shelves to hold all the props that each girl needs. The three central performances are beautifully judged with each actor fully on top of the vocal, acting and accent challenges: Lauren Samuels as Mary incarnates a quest for freedom that embraces both liberation and hollow disappointment; Ashleigh Gray as Kathy finds that organisation and planning only get you so far in life; and Lizzy Connolly’s neurotic embrace of conventional expectations implodes magnificently. Due praise should also go to musical director Tamara Saringer and the band, Chris Cuming for some deft choreography, and the rest of the team for setting up such smooth turn-arounds between and within the many scenes.
As in so many of the best musicals the final revelation is that although time leaves its marks on us all, the key inclinations and likely decisions of the characters are already implicit in their temperaments and beginnings; so that when we reach the poignant ending we are directed back to reflect again on where we started, and what seemed a trite opening scene acquires fresh depth and significance.
This is tight writing that gets a performance it deserves that brings out every nuance. No one who loves musical theatre should miss this fine evening which earns the tag of ‘life-affirming’ only because it pays due and realistic tribute to the darker sides of relationships too.