Photo credit: Pamela Raith
Written by Jack Heifner, Vanities the play opened many decades ago in New York but it has taken an astonishing forty years for the story to delight London audiences as the musical adaptation, with music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum, opened at Trafalgar Studios this week. Despite its global success I wasn't familiar with the story before seeing the show, but it was the star attraction of the three leading ladies, Ashleigh Gray, Lauren Samuels and Lizzy Connolly, that caught my attention. And having the opportunity to see them perform in the intimate Studio 2 was an absolute delight.
Vanities the Musical chronicles the lives of three Texan friends across the 1960s and '70s, from preppy cheerleaders in high school through to middle-age, with all the highs and lows that life throws their way in between. As seniors in high school, Joanne, Kathy and Mary have it all; popularity, boyfriends, and friends that will last them a lifetime, or so they think. They go to the same university and join the same sorority, the path of success laid out for them in school continuing on as they grow older. Slowly but surely, however, they start getting different interests and dreams, and even though they continue to live together throughout uni the cracks start to show in their friendship.
The second half of the show, comprising act 3 and 4 and showing the women in their 30s and 40s, is less happy-go-lucky than the first. Joanne, Kathy and Mary are no longer the tight trio they once were and they aren't content with how their lives have turned out. Yet for all their differences as adults, when they finally see each other again and even though years have passed, it is a pivotal moment in their lives. It gives them a second chance at finding happiness as adults and it's up to them whether they take this opportunity or continue on their paths of inevitable self-destruction.
The show's plot makes it sound like a heavy and serious musical and while there are certainly moments of contemplation for both the characters and audience, for the most part this show was funny and light-hearted. The three leading ladies have wonderful comedic chops and I found myself cracking up out loud on more than one occasion. The character of Joanne in particular brought oodles of contagious joy to what could've easily been quite a dull show to watch and Lizzy Connolly was perfect as the seemingly naive Southern girl with simple dreams. I had the pleasure of seeing Lizzy in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Xanadu before, and in both of those shows too she stole the spotlight with her fantastic comedic timing.
That isn't to say that Lauren Samuels (Bend it Like Beckham, We Will Rock You) and Ashleigh Gray (Wicked, Cool Rider) weren't a joy to watch, because they were. Lauren transformed herself on stage from sweet and bubbly in the first half to visibly aged and cynical in the second with complete conviction, and Ashley's transformation was equally impressive though what stayed with me the most were her powerful vocals ringing through the intimate auditorium. This show boosts an incredibly strong cast and having the opportunity to see them in action in the tiny three-row studio theatre felt like a real privilege.
The book by Jack Heifner was fun while also providing plenty of food for thought about friendship, dreams and love, though its solemn final act felt at odds with its far more upbeat and colourful precedents. It were the poppy Legally Blonde and Hairspray-esque tones of David Kirshenbaum's music and lyrics that really boost Vanities to the next level. From I Don't Want to Miss a Thing in the first act through to The Same Old Music in the third, the songs were equal amounts fun and cheesy, bordering on a parody of itself but just staying within the realm of realism.
Vanities the Musical starts off centering on three vain girls obsessed with mirrors and popularity, but as the girls grow into women the show itself matures too. The musical goes from preppy and poppy to heartbreak and misery, but what stays the same throughout are the wonderful performances of the leading trio and a joyful score which ensures that the audience members leave Trafalgar Studios with a firm smile on their face.