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Amanda McBroom in A Woman of Will
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The daughter of a Hollywood actor occasionally billed in westerns, singer/songwriter Amanda McBroom -- who first hit pay dirt in 1979 when Bette Middler throbbed the title song of The Rose, which McBroom wrote -- must have learned, if only by proximity, to roll with the punches. So she ought to be able to withstand the knocks she's going to endure now that she's made a colossal mistake: a one-woman musical in which she goes head to head with dramatic literature's biggest heavyweight, William Shakespeare. That's right, the "Will" in the 80-minute tuner's tag, A Woman of Will, is a pun. In this bout between the Bard and the lady, guess who ends up flat on the canvas. Zounds!

The set-up is that McBroom's character, 52-year-old lyricist Kate, is holed up in a spacious Cleveland hotel room, trying to write an 11 o'clock show-stopper for a musical adaptation of The Merchant of Venice that is to star Jennifer Lopez, of all unlikely people and of all tired butts of jokes. Enjoying no holiday at the Holiday Inn, Kate -- whose love life is a tug-of-war between her husband and her younger lover -- has a good working knowledge of Shakespeare's comedies, tragedies, and histories from having played them out with her father since she was a tyke, so she turns to the fictional characters for inspiration. In the process, she warbles songs that Ophelia or Lady Macbeth might utter were they to take a break from the gorgeous words that the master wordsmith put in their mouths.

Yes, McBroom has had the audacity to write alternates to Shakespeare's lines and the further audacity to sing them in the guise of the various, fabled characters. This monumental blunder leads to King Lear's nasty daughter Goneril blasting "The Bitch is Out" and stomping around the stage, thanks to Thommie Walsh choreography, as if she were Tony Manero in a hissy fit. There's more! Evidently having little regard for Gertrude's description of Ophelia's drowning ("Her clothes spread wide / And mermaidlike a while they bore her up"), she discards it and provides her own mopey elegy, which begins: "Standing in the river, dress around your knees / Watching your reflection framed by willow trees." Later, Lady Macbeth writes a letter to Ann Landers, and the imp-of-all-tempests Ariel writhes around on the hotel bed tooting "The Hard to Be a Fairy Blues."

Not all of the show's 15 songs -- mostly written with collaborator Joel Silberman, although two have McBroom melodies and one has music by Michele Brourman -- are directly inspired by Shakespeare. A few of them, all with numbingly ordinary lyrics, are here simply for Kate to express her feelings about her love life. One of the ballads, titled "Suddenly Love," goes: "Suddenly love / Opens up that rusty door / To places like forevermore." Other selections with "love" in the title include "Is It Love?" and "I Choose to Love." None of them has any personality, any quirkiness; they're no different than the songs that so many hopefuls are turning out in the hope that Mariah Carey or Kelly Clarkson will sit up and take notice.

McBroom is not equipped for any of this. She may be able to write music, but she can't speak it; there is no lilt in her voice. Her idea of acting Shakespeare is to tilt her head upward, fix a gallant expression on her handsome face, and iambic-pentameter away. It doesn't work. She's no Shakespearean thespian, and in pretending that she is, she insults others who are -- others for whom playing Shakespeare means creating a complete character. Fie, madam, fie!

For this show -- which unwisely has Kate declare at one point, "I can't write anything, I have nothing to say" -- composer Silberman doubles as director and does an okay job of it. Trefoni Michael Rizzi designed the sets, projections, and lights; Lewis Mead did the sound; Tobin Ost supplied the trouser outfit that McBroom occasionally accessorizes with strategically placed scarves and things. None of their efforts disguise the impoverishment of the material.

Although McBroom is alone on stage, the phone rings repeatedly. The recorded voices of George Ball, Patrick Cassidy, Andre Dé Shields, Jay Rogers, Alix Korey (now there's someone who can sell a song!), and Jim Dale (as Shakespeare himself) implore Kate to acquiesce to their bidding, though she never picks up the receiver. No one, however, rings to suggest that she cut out the nonsense. Throughout A Woman of Will, McBroom remains a woman of woe but never becomes a woman of wow. Her mediocre-and-worse material drags her under every bit as fatally as Ophelia's garments, "heavy with their drink, pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death."

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