The Plain Janes mount a hilarious musical romp through 1980s Madrid
Plain Jane Theatre Company has always had a knack for reviving musicals that didn’t necessarily live up to their initial potential during Broadway runs, but Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown is a standout.
A farcical tale of love, infidelity, and crime in ‘80s Madrid, Jeffery Lane’s screenplay (based on the 1988 film by Pedro Almodóvar) boasts an abundance of the embellishments that make a great romantic comedy work, while also presenting an endearing human narrative that’s brought to life with surprising continuity by Plain Janes’ cast and crew.
When middle-aged celebrity actress Pepa (Jocelyn Ahlf) isn’t dealing with the overbearing empathy of her friends and coworkers reacting to her in-progress breakup, she’s taxiing around town juggling life-altering revelations and criminal plots as she tries not to lose her mind in a fight for Ivan’s (Vance Avery) love.
Great physical comedy scenes, aided by lengthy pauses on stage that lets each joke breathe, leave the house roaring with laughter. And nearly every gag has a thru-line, fully realized as the cast whole-heartedly sells their ludicrous behaviour. It also never feels like a scene is out of place in Lane’s script, especially because of the attention paid to small details under the direction of Kate Ryan. From the brisk flick of a wrist on a checklist to a woman picking her teeth in a mirror as she wheels it off during a scene change, every player in the eight-person cast works to keep us in the moment.
And each scene is effectively set by a simple gobo stencil of high-rise apartment lights against the stage’s coloured backdrop as the cast mambos across a giant line-art portrait of a harried woman on the floor. Fur-lined furniture and on-point costume design by Leona Brausen complete the effect, placing us in the heart of big city Spanish life.
Each part of the disjointed and humourous narrative wouldn’t mesh as well as it does if it weren’t for outstanding musical performances from the cast. The singing is almost without fault, save for a few moments in the opening number where it seems like Jason Hardwick needed to catch his breath. (He frequently redeems himself in several rhythmic displays of exposition throughout the show in his role as a hilarious bard-like taxi driver—often breaking the fourth wall to transport us between scenes and timelines.)
The pleasantly discernible annunciation through consistent Spanish accents is essential in conveying the show’s story through songs, and the harmonies and polyphonies in the ensemble numbers are powerful and clear. Strong sound design from Alana Rice helps each performer’s vocals really resonate with the live four-person band as well.
Ahlf flaunts an impressive range in her solos, especially in Pepa’s infectious “Love Sick” and the sustained notes in “Island.” And Candela’s (Michelle Diaz) raucous “Model Behaviour” delights with the ‘80s equivalent of spamming your best friend with text messages. After hearing Diaz nail this number, I was worried that a supporting performance would decisively steal the show. But in every song, each performer stepped up to the lofty bar set by their peers and delivered undeniably personal accomplishments.
And thank goodness for the live band supporting them. Backing these vocalists with anything other than the multi-talented instrumentalists playing various winds, keys, an accordion, and drums would have been a massive disservice, but the group directed by Erik Mortimer hit every beat, and then some.
The precise and witty music and lyrics written by David Yazbek most irresistibly leap off the stage in Lucia’s (Andrea House) “Invisible.” As House’s long eyelashes flutter, she sets aside Lucia’s usual coercive whining and manipulative insanity to settle into an unshakeable funk everyone in Edmonton needs to hear.
Also punctuating every moment of narrative craziness and musicality, Cindy Kerr’s choreography pushes fun synchronization to higher heights with endearing characterization from each dancer, and with it, Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown winds its way into my heart as one of my favourite musicals of all time.
That’s not to say there are tidy conclusions for everyone here. While most characters like Pepa grow and explore their tangled relationships, others continue on in their surreal paths that feel tonally appropriate for passion-filled nights in Spain.
Until Sat., Feb. 24
Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown