Lauren Kennedy, Anneliese Van Der Pol, and Sarah Stiles
in Vanities
(© Joan Marcus)
Lauren Kennedy, Anneliese Van Der Pol, and Sarah Stiles
in Vanities
(© Joan Marcus)
Like its protagonists, the musical Vanities, now at Second Stage Theater, is pretty to look at and eager to please -- but ultimately, is its own worst enemy. The show features a book by Jack Heifner, adapted from his hit 1976 play, and a score from David Kirshenbaum -- and while their pleasant work serves the coming-of-age story of three young women from Texas reasonably well, Vanities never fully engages theatergoers' hearts.

After a brief prologue, Vanities transports audiences to November 22, 1963 and the gymnasium of a small town high school near Dallas, one of the many settings marvelously created by Anna Louizos' elegant scenic design. It's where we first meet our three heroines. Cheerleader Kathy (Anneliese van der Pol, who gracefully tracks the character's arc from self-assurance to hopelessness) struggles to get her best friends Joanne (whom Sarah Stiles plays with surface cuteness, but a steely determination), and Mary (imbued with cleverness and later a devil-may-care demeanor by Lauren Kennedy) to concentrate on an upcoming pep rally, but boys and other social issues keep getting in the way. Here, Kirshenbaum's music shrewdly reflects how tight this group is; rarely during the first scene do any of the women sing solos, instead, they perform a variety of girl group-like songs.

In the show's second scene, the young women -- who have gone to the same local college -- have become heads of their sorority, but they're less in sync than before. Joanne's upcoming wedding to her high school sweetheart contrasts pungently with Mary's planned summertime jaunt to Europe, and the once-confident Kathy is still reeling from the fact that her high school beau has married another young woman who's carrying his child and unsure about her career path. After Kathy's haunting confessional ballad about her bitter disappointment with men (the ironically titled "Cute Boys with Short Haircuts"), Mary attempts to convince her pal to be a little less structured in her life with a soaring Burt Bacharach-like pop tune. The difference in both the song styles and their messages beautifully demonstrates the ever-widening gap between the women.

When Vanities moves forward to New York City in 1974, the group -- who have not been in the same room for four years -- proves to be almost completely fractured. Mary, a promiscuous "free spirit" who runs an erotic art gallery, condescends almost to the point of cruelty about Joanne's life as a Connecticut housewife and mother. The suburban existence troubles Joanne herself, and she reveals it drunkenly in a twangy country-western number. Unsurprising confessions and confrontations -- perhaps the only false moments in director Judith Ivey's otherwise well-observed staging -- prove to be the group's undoing and both Mary and Joanne storm out of Kathy's posh penthouse.

Heifner's most substantial change to his original script (which he has otherwise just tweaked for the musical) is an epilogue set in 1990 in which the women repair their friendship. Unfortunately, the addition, which is forced and overly saccharine, has the effect of making the show seem a bit like a Lifetime Television production. Worse, it undermines Heifner's careful observations -- even in 2009 -- about the journey these women have taken through the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s.