Forty years since its original production and Vanities is still relevant today. There isn’t one audience member that could say that they didn’t relate to at least some aspect of the experiences, relationships and changes that the three main characters portrayed.
Forty years after it’s first appearance in New York, Vanities has now made its London debut as a musical. Based on the original script by Jack Heifner with music and lyrics by David Kirchenbaum, director Racky Plews presents a version of the show that is entertaining, funny and fabulous.
Following the lives of three women Joanne (Lizzy Connolly), Mary (Lauren Samuels) and Cathy (Ashleigh Gray), Plews’ version of Heifner’s show still captures the loss of innocence, the lack of a worldview and the changing role of women – yet Plews also puts friendship and fun at the heart of her production.
The staging is rather intimate with Andrew Riley’s set design including three separate dressing tables scattered with props, including make-up, that cleverly signify the three different personalities of the characters. Riley’s design was vibrant and inviting, with shiny linoleum flooring and flouro-rainbow lighting that captured a youthful, fun feeling.
Mirrors, appearance and aesthetics played a big part in the show’s message and this was reflected in Riley’s design not only through the dressing tables but the large wall of mirrors at the back of the set. This forced the audience to look at themselves, just as the characters do.
Another part of the set design that worked particularly well was the constant display of props. These remained on stage throughout, even before and after they had been used – this helped present the show as a snapshot into life, that things from the past still linger as the women move on, and likewise that their future is looming.
Riley created a dynamic design that allowed all aspects of the space to be used well. However, the show was performed with thrust staging and this didn’t work very well as the majority of Plews’ staging was presented as if it was front-on. A couple of moments in the corners were not enough to give everyone in the audience the sightlines they deserve.
As Vanities opens, the audience are met with three stereotypical Southern Belles, beautiful, youthful and innocent. Heifner’s witty script and Kirshenbaum’s clever, funny lyrics reveal that each girl has her own very distinct personality and a separate path lies ahead for each of them.
The second song I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing saw each character come into their own and a brilliant three-way dynamic developed that remained present throughout the whole show. It was clear that Lizzie Connolly, Lauren Samuels and Ashleigh Gray had a natural chemistry that allowed their character’s friendship to blossom but also made the intricacies of each of their personalities shine as they bounced off each other.
Lauren Samuels as Mary uses her facial expressions brilliantly, to heighten comedy moments but also gives the audience little glimmer’s into her true personality outside of the three girls friendship. Her performance of ‘Fly into the Future’ demonstrated her powerful vocal ability whilst allowing the audience to delve deeper into her character. Her balance between selfishness and vulnerability was spot on as it allowed the audience to resent her actions but understand that she is as troubled as the others.
Compared to Samuels and Gray, Lizzy Connolly is the newest to the professional theatre scene yet this was not shown in her performance at all. Connolly brought a playful and hilarious innocence to the character of Joanne with perfectly awkward moments created through her dry line delivery.
Connolly demonstrated a balance between sheltered naivety and ignorance very well and therefore her eventual open attitude to change did not seem forced or unbelievable. The stand out scene for Connolly is her skilfully performed song ‘Same Old Music’. Connolly was entertaining and it was clear she enjoyed every line of that song which in turn made the audience enjoy it even more.
In her role as Cathy, Ashleigh Gray was at first relentless and annoying – in a good way, but as her character developed she became relaxed and endearing. From the outset Gray’s confidence and ease as a performer was apparent: the way she controlled her voice in the Studio to not lose any power but still making it soft, especially in her song Cute Boys; the intention behind every line she delivered. Gray is a complete professional. It was lovely to see the character of Cathy develop and find the balance between vulnerability and strength.
For a musical there wasn’t a particularly high amount of choreography, however this would have overwhelmed the space anyway and not fit with the natural fluidity of the performance. There was one little moment during ‘Let Life Happen’ where tap dance was used, but this was still in keeping with the tone and brought a playful feeling to the song.
Although again impacted by the limited space, it was a real shame that the live band was not more obvious. Until witnessing the band leave the theatre, one assumed that it was actually a pre-recorded soundtrack. Having the band or at least the musical director Tamara Saringer come to take her bow would have given the musicians the praise they deserved.
Overall, Vanities is a thoroughly entertaining and feel-good show. The show delves into gender stereotypes and touches on significant issues that have effected women over the past 50 years such as the contraceptive pill and sexual awareness, whilst, at the same time, creating a very realistic home for these issues in the characters presented.
As the show progresses the audience sees that the stereotypes, hypocrisies and attitudes that surround, specifically, women are forever evolving and Vanities demonstrates that we are not cut from moulds and it is never too late to appreciate that being an individual is just as powerful and as important as having relationships to shape who you are and who you want to be.
Forty years since its original production and the show is still relevant today. There isn’t one audience member that could say that they didn’t relate to at least some aspect of the experiences, relationships and changes that the three main characters portrayed.
Some may argue that the show lacked depth and that it all ends a little bit “happily ever after” – but what’s wrong with that? The cyclical nature of the script and the emphasis on friendship is what makes this show thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable.