By Daniel Reskin
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This is not a common subject for the stage, screen, or most anyplace else. But Cuillo Centre for the Arts' current production, Menopause: The Musical, is a cabaret-style musical about what feminist Gail Sheehy termed "the Silent Passage" and what aunts, mothers, and grandmothers for generations have referred to in hushed tones as "the change." Black, white, gay, straight -- every woman experiences it, yet, ironically, it is rarely discussed. Did Maude, the first "mature" female character to have her own sitcom, ever do anything more than throw out a wisecrack about hot flashes? Even the Golden Girls glossed over it with a wink and a giggle. Well, writer and lyricist Jeanie Linders is making up for lost time. She has dedicated an entire play to the phenomenon. Featuring four women over age 50 who meet in an upscale department store in New York City, Menopause: The Musical is an hour and a half of hormonal high jinks and humorous renditions of popular tunes from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. While Menopauseis not sophisticated, thought-provoking theater, it is entertaining and has found a wildly enthusiastic audience: pre-, post-, and menopausal women and their partners.
Together the four actresses are meant to represent a cross section of American women. The lineup is as follows: earth mother Pamela O'Bannon; power executive Shelley Browne; Iowa housewife Diana Rogers; and TV soap star Wesley Williams. Sound like an all-female episode of Gilligan's Island? These characters are intentionally flat. Unlike other female-centered productions, such as Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, Menopause: The Musical is not trying to create a complex portrait of the female psyche. These vaginas are not narrating; they're singing.
That said, the interesting thing about Menopause is that despite its conventional and often mediocre text and performance, the play's subject matter is innovative and surprisingly unexplored. Even Ensler's Monologues (considered avant-garde in part because it includes more mature women) doesn't really touch on menopause. Quite simply Menopause: The Musical is not about feminism. It's about feeling good. And it's definitely found its audience. The show plays consistently to packed houses and has been extended three more weeks.
While Linders's dialogue is fairly predictable (the women say things to one another like "Well, I never!" and "Well, maybe you should start then!"), her lyrics are a clever, albeit hormonally imbalanced trip down memory lane. The musical score meticulously covers the symptoms of menopause, starting with a variation on Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools." The menopausal refrain is "Change, change, change. Change of life." The lyrics catalogue the major symptoms of menopause: hot flashes (appropriately this is a refrain that reoccurs throughout the show), night sweats, memory loss, weight gain, depression, decreased sex drive, and general confusion.
Neither the choreography nor the actresses are technically sophisticated, but the women's voices are capable and consistent throughout. Some showstopping tunes include "The Husband Sleeps Tonight," which decries the lack of lust after age 50. ("In the guest room or on the sofa, the husband sleeps tonight.") The four actresses accompany the "wimoweh" refrain: "She's a witch, she's a witch, and she's a bitch, she's a bitch," hitting wooden spoons against a cutting board and kitchen utensils against a metal grater. They also have an audacious playfulness, which is a prerequisite for these cabaret-style numbers. There is a lot of finger wagging and pointing à la the Supremes, and, of course, the show would not be complete without one of the women hiking up her foot on the chair of a chagrined male audience member.
Power executive Shelley Browne's gospel-trained voice adds some soul to the standard renditions of these numbers, and her version of Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do with It?" -- shaggy wig and all -- brings down the house. "What's love got to do with it?" a heavyset Tina implores as she struts and croons in praise of the virtues of battery-operated love. "It's not just the thrill of boy meeting girl when you're alone in the sack..../What's love, but a second hand motion...." Diana Rogers, as the conservative housewife from Iowa and recent sex-tool convert, sings homage to "Good Vibrations" while caressing an unusually fleshy-looking microphone. Incidentally the show takes a turn for the positive here, shifting from the symptoms of menopause to its possible remedies: vibrators, accepting wrinkles, and the big finale tune, "I've Got a New Attitude."
This play definitely was created for a specific audience. If you wander in off the street expecting serious theater, you will be let down. Even if you find the subject matter interesting and the lyrics funny, the show runs a little long. But it's also long on laughs. I have rarely seen an audience (men and women alike) laugh so wholeheartedly. Maybe because outside there seems to be so little respect for the images represented onstage. West Palm Beach's café-lined Clematis Street looks like an impromptu catwalk for females from age thirteen to fifty trying to be twenty. Gaggles of knock-kneed preadolescents pass by, swaggering and tottering on transparent platform shoes. Bejeweled women in their mid- to late forties squeeze into skintight Tommy jeans and I Dream of Jeannie tops. One average Joe passes by, escorting a young filly of at least 55 in a transparent "dress" that resembles baby-doll pajamas and a white, wide-brimmed cowboy hat. Add to that your standard fare of cosmetically engineered, puffy-lipped, torpedo-breasted women in their thirties, and you've got a Saturday night just about anywhere in the United States, where silicone, credit cards, and MTV videos unite.
No wonder there's such applause for four full-figured gals singing their hearts out about menopause. Lil' Kim is going to get it. Madonna is going to get it. Yes, even Pamela Anderson will someday go through it. Inside the packed theater, women and men cheer for "the change" and, more important, a change of attitude. The actresses deliver the chorus of "The Husband Sleeps Tonight" with the vigor of a punch line, and the audience bursts into laughter.
Outside no one sleeps too heavily or laughs too loudly -- it causes wrinkles.