Meet Joanne, Mary and Kathy: three best friends who embark on their journey from popular high-school cheerleaders in 60‘s Texas, to college sorority sisters, eventually finding themselves reunited but isolated in 70’s New York City. Jack Heifner and David Kirshenbaum’s ‘Vanities The Musical’ centres around the trio’s friendships and hardships, exploring the realities of growing up and growing apart and, even though it is not the most original of stories, with a soundtrack infused with comedy and sentiment performed by a master cast, it is no wonder that London’s West End is boasting about the debut of this musical, forty years after Heifner’s play version opened in New York.
The protagonists are played impeccably by Lizzy Connolly (Joanne), Lauren Samuels (Mary) and Ashleigh Gray (Kathy), who, with the aid of Racky Plews’ intelligent direction, give depth to three otherwise stereotypical bimbos. Like each of us, the characters are all troubled in their own way and, behind the comedy (which is primarily provided by the hysterical Connolly), is a tenderness which becomes apparent as the self-centred cheerleaders (whose only worry upon hearing of the President’s assassination is that the school football game will be cancelled) become wives, businesswomen and, ultimately – lost souls. At sixteen, the naive and ditzy Joanne talks of marrying her high-school sweetheart, the feisty Mary is intent on moving to Europe and compulsive controller Kathy is determined to teach P.E; but ‘Vanities The Musical’ explores what happens when our idealised vision of the future is exposed to the vulnerabilities, opportunities and realities which arise when our paths unexpectedly divert. The fast pace of the first half, filled with fizzy, contagious vivacity somewhat dilutes in the second half as the drama dominates. However, with the help of Andrew Riley’s set and costume design, which fills the intimate Trafalgar Studios with life and colour, the energy never subsides.
Kirshenbaum’s score is an enjoyable piece of 60’s nostalgia and, even though not all of the numbers are particularly memorable, the trio’s vocals are truly impressive and pack a punch, with blending harmonies tighter than a pair of 70’s disco pants. Samuels’ ‘Fly Into the Future’ was performed with confident relish and Gray’s ‘Cute Boys with Short Haircuts’ (which I now cannot stop listening to) had such heart that I found myself swallowing copiously to rid myself of the rather large lump that had formed in my throat.
It is not the most innovative idea and it doesn’t stretch the imagination but, for me, ‘Vanities The Musical’ is a refreshing version of a told tale and, whilst the comedy of the stereotype is present, the Regina Georges of the high-school chick flicks remain in the shadows. This show affected me as, even though I wasn’t a high-school cheerleader and I didn’t grow up to own a phallic exhibition gallery, the sentiment is completely relatable, as we all just have to learn to ‘embrace the unexpected and let life happen.’ My emotions were provoked as I laughed out loud and quashed tears and, since seeing the show, I have been whistling the tunes and telling fellow theatre lovers what a joy it was to spend an evening in the company of Joanne, Mary and Kathy. ‘Vanities The Musical’ is another dazzling production in Aria Entertainment’s charming and growing catalogue and, whether it is an evening with your friends, or with a glass of wine as your only accompaniment, I urge you to invest in a ticket – you won’t be disappointed as you come away with aching cheeks from smiling and your heart strings well and truly tugged.