theatre/dance

April 23, 2004

 

The 'change' in revue
By David Ollington

Broadway musicals from their inception until the middle of the 20th century operated as light divertissement‹a flimsy plot in between musical numbers and dancing. The convention of cohesively uniting the elements of a musical play began with Jerome Kern's and Oscar Hammerstein's Show Boat (1927), which brought together song and plot. The landmark work Oklahoma! (1943) succeeded at integrating dance as an art form into a substantial story with character-driven song work. The telling of a story with song and dialogue remains to this day the ideal of the musical play.

Chavez Ravine, Licia Watson, Debra Bluford and Jacqueline Reilly (clockwise from top) in Menopause the Musical at the American Heartland Theatre thru May 13.


Beginning with Pump Boys and Dinettes (1981), a new kind of musical emerged, not on the Broadway stage, but in smaller venues, particularly dinner theatre and regional theatres. This new form uses a small cast of characters and hearkens back to the pre-Oklahoma! days of musical history: a loose, light plot with very little character development interspersed with songs and dances, the musical numbers taking the bulk of the stage time.

A revue is a musical theatrical event that unites the elements of the production with something other than plot: a particular composer, a theme or even a producer. Historians refer to the early 20th century as the Age of the Revue, with Vaudeville, a conglomerate of disparate variety acts, the hallmark of the age. This new dinner-theatre genre acts as a hybrid of the revue and the musical play.

Since Pump Boys, possibly dozens of these highly producible (small cast, small budget) and entertaining works have appeared. Forever Plaid (1990) unites four handsome male singers for an evening of nostalgic music and a sparse theme—they perform for us from beyond the grave. Nunsense (1985) puts several singing and dancing nuns onstage with an occasional reference to their characters and a story. The success of Nunsense led to several sequels—Nunsense II, Nuncrackers and Nunsense Jamboree. Kansas City theatres, notably the New Theatre Restaurant and the American Heartland Theatre, annually mount examples of this aesthetic, a cross between a revue and a musical play.

Menopause the Musical, now playing at the American Heartland Theatre, fits neatly into this genre. Four women meet at Bloomingdales in New York: Power Woman (Chavez Ravine), a business executive, Earth Mother (Debra Bluford), an aging hippy, Iowa Housewife (Jacqueline Reilly), a good wife and mother from the heartland, and Soap Star (Licia Watson), a maturing actress in daytime television drama. Practically butting heads around a table full of reduced-price lingerie, the four women end up spending the day together. All of them share the difficulties of menopause, and all of them sing and dance.

The production staff at the Heartland Theatre made a brilliant marketing maneuver in choosing Menopause the Musical for their current season. Women going through the change make up a huge percentage of their regular audience, and their houses have been so full the theatre has dramatically extended the run of the show.

The service organization for Menopause the Musical, Women for Women, exists to give relevance and value to women over 40. Writer/producer jeanie linders (consistently spelled in the program without capital letters) maintains that the product is not about entertainment but about women. This musical does manage to entertain effectively, but the most touching moment of the show occurs at the end. For the finale, the four actresses invite onstage all the women in the audience who are going through or have gone through the change. Often, performers handle audience participation moments awkwardly, but these superb professionals invite the women onstage with tactful but energized enthusiasm. The crowded stage full of women performing the final kick line empowers them and brings beauty and humor to a trying time of life.

Creators linders, Kathryn Conte, Patty Bender and C.T. Hollis have reworked standard songs and set them to new lyrics about menopause. Bluford sings "In the guestroom or on the sofa, my husband sleeps tonight" to the tune of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Watson sings (more than once) "I'm having a hot flash" to the music of "Heat Wave." The melody of "Lookin' for Love in All the Wrong Places" accompanies the lyrics "Packin' on pounds where I don't have spaces." A comical medley about the women's use of marital devices for self-pleasuring begins with a unique rendition of the Beach Boys classic song "Good Vibrations." A total of 28 songs interrupt snatches of dialogue with brief references to a developing friendship between the four characters.

The four women onstage bring life to the music and somehow manage to infuse realism into the small moments of a barebones plot. Bluford, as always, regales the audience with physical humor and sings perfectly. We even experience some of her rarely heard high notes. When the women sit down to lunch, Bluford executes a charming bit with her menu, moving it farther and farther from her middle-aged eyes in order to read it. Ravine creates an imposing and dignified "Power Woman." During the dildo sequence, Ravine dons a tight mini-skirt and a blonde fright wig to deliver a perfect imitation of Tina Turner singing "What's Love Got to Do With It?"

The strengths of the show (particularly the final kick line) outweigh some problems. A satire of "I've Got You Babe" has the actresses inexplicably donning Sonny and Cher, circa 1970, attire. Choreographer Patty Bender competently staged the musical numbers but relies on repetitious ideas. Most of the songs are Motown with new lyrics, and Bender has few choices but to put the soloist in front with the other three singers in unison back-up singing sways. The dancing garners several chuckles because we watch these women boogie down not with your typical musical theatre smiles, but with facial expressions of discomfort over their biological plight, a device that tires with reiteration.

Menopause the Musical provides a delightful evening of entertainment in a specific and common contemporary musical theatre format. The final musical number succeeds at both entertaining the spectators and honoring womankind.

Menopause the Musical runs through May 13 at the American Heartland Theatre in Crown Center. Call 816-842-9999 or visit www.ahtkc.com.

David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com or publisher_editEKC@kcactive.com.

 


              
              
                 

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