Vanities: The Musical -Trafalgar Studios, London

Music and Lyrics: David Kirshenbaum
Book: Jack Heifner
Director and Choreographer: Racky Plews
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Even in the UK, the American high school experience is incredibly familiar and there are numerous films, musicals and books dedicated to a period many writers consider pivotal in the particular shaping of young women. Regardless of generation, at some point, most people will have read a Sweet Valley High story, sung along to Grease and Hairspray or giggled at the satirical cruelty of Mean Girls. But the happy endings these films offer are illusory, what happens after graduation when the Pink Ladies and the Plastics go their separate ways, who do they become? Vanities: The Musical finds out.

Adapted from his own 1970s stage play, Jack Heifner has joined forces with composer and lyricist David Kirshenbaum to examine the nature of female friendship as life, careers and family get in the way. Vanities: The Musical is the story of cheerleaders Kathy, Mary and Joanne who vow eternal allegiance to one another in their teenage locker-room oblivious to the dangers of the real world around them. Despite joining the same sorority at College, the friends head in very different directions and as they meet again old and new worlds collide unexpectedly.

This is an incredibly ambitious musical, charting the lives of three people across three decades of the 20th Century, a period of significant political and societal change. It opens in the early innocence of the 1960s before taking in the sexual revolution and the working freedom of women in the 1970s and 80s, a process that is actually captures rather well through the lives of its characters. As well as a sweeping approach to time, it also tackles various stages of life from the rites of passage aspects of high school, through marriages, decisions about children and finding both purpose and confidence as the women age.

What makes this such a charming piece is how neatly Kirshenbaum and Heifner have woven this grand canvas into a rather intimate story of three very different but likeable girls whose constant refrain of “where do I go from here” will resonate with audiences who have at some point wondered the same. Kathy, Mary and Joanne don’t always behave well to each other or with particular awareness of that bigger picture, but they are an engaging trio with their own distinct foibles and fears.

Ashleigh Gray’s Kathy is the group’s anchor, the popular head cheerleader who plans all the parties and knows exactly what she wants. Yet as her friends find their way, the certainties Kathy took for granted start to waiver and she has a number of poignant moments feeling left behind. Some of the lyrics in solos like Cute Boys with Short Haircuts become a little repetitive, but Gray infuses them with feeling that make the audience root for her.

Lizzie Connolly has the most overtly comedic role as the innocent Joanne who utilises a guileless Southern accent to great effect. Unlike the other girls, her only ambition is to marry and have children but Connolly demonstrates an underlying bitterness in the spikier third act as the 28-year-old ladies reunite after years apart. Finally, Lauren Samuels’ Mary is the one embracing her sexual freedom and becoming a powerful force in the art world, rousingly declaring she will Fly Into the Future.

Kirshenbaum’s songs are more of a mixed bag. Some shrewdly reflect the style of music at the time of the story with Let Life Happen adopting a Burt Bacharach-esque tone for the late 1960s while Joanne’s solo in 1974 The Same Old Music has a country feel. Yet the linking sections, Mystery I-IV are just a collection of sung make-up and clothing brands that adds relatively little, and while there’s the odd throw-away reference to Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation and Vietnam, that grand canvas could cast a slightly more obvious shadow over the lives of these women to define the different decades.

In the very very tiny space of Trafalgar Studios 2, Andrew Riley’s set and costume design work perfectly to keep the action flowing while reflecting the intimacy of the story, utilising three ‘changing rooms’ as time capsules that marked the passing of the years. Vanities: The Musical is sugary and sweet but taking a fairly honest look at the changing opportunities for women in the last 40 years. It may not quite have the exuberant joy of its toe-tapping high school counterparts, but in a society obsessed with youth it assures us women really do get better with age.

Runs until 1 October 2016 | Image: Pamela Raith

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Sugary, sweet, honest

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