Monday, April 4, 2016

Review: Here Come The Desperate Real Housewives of Toluca Lake

L-R: Meredith Patterson, Anita Barone, Jenna Coker-Jones, Cynthia Ferrer,
and Adrienne Visnic. All photos by Sasha  A. Venola

With a title like The Real Housewives of Toluca Lake: The Musical you wouldn’t expect to see high art, but I at least thought this new musical would kill it in the comedy department. Instead, it trades on desperate humor, trite songs, stereotypical characters, and a storyline you’ve seen before. What could have been a smart, cheeky parody of The Real Housewives television franchise instead ends up feeling rather desperate. Even an audience packed with friends and family on opening night grew tired of applauding and a fair number of one-liners made no impact at all.

I knew we were in trouble from the moment the over-amplified canned music began. Not only was it so loud you couldn’t understand the lyrics but it also caused pitch problems, especially in the ladies’ upper registers when it was clear they were pushing to get more volume. It’s an easy fix. Just turn down the cheesy pre-recorded tracks. Please.

The show follows an episodic structure with each location announced by a sign overhead. I counted at least fourteen in the first act alone, most of them written as a one-trick sight gag. The opening introduces the characters and sets up the ground rules. Next is the funeral of their recently deceased head housewife who bequeaths her title to one of the remaining wives (shades of Desperate Housewives). Then comes the Pampered Tush spa scene, the shopping network studio, the golf course clubhouse, a Bollywood pool party, the shoe store…you get the picture. 

The show needs editing but when book, music & lyrics (by Molly Bell) are all written by the same person, it’s almost impossible to view the work objectively enough to make those cuts. That’s why musical theatre is a collaborative art. You need to be able to “kill your babies” (cut the songs, jokes, scenes that don’t work) and move on.

Director Roger Bean goes for exaggeration to the point of caricature in all of the characters. Marc Ginsburg, the lone male actor in the cast, plays everything from an over-the-top smarmy studio announcer to an over-the-top gym instructor to an over-the-top snooty store manager. He does have one genuinely funny sequence late in the show where he plays the husbands of two of the housewives – one gay, one straight – at the same time, alternating from one bedroom to the other.

As for the wives, each one is a stereotypical version of what you’ve seen on television. Adrienne Visnic (Babette) is the sexy one; Meredith Patterson (Joanne) the perfect one; Anita Barone (Lulu) the mysterious one; Cynthia Ferrer (Beezus) the richest and menopausal one; and Jenna Coker-Jones, the religious one. They’re beautiful, bitchy, and back-stabbing throughout. 

While their humor is based on superficiality, there are times the sight gags work. The shock mask treatment at the spa is pretty hilarious and Coker-Jones takes her character so deadly serious that it’s impossible not to laugh at the things she says. But overall the actors are working so hard to make the show funny that they end up looking uncomfortable when it doesn’t work. Nothing is worse than being on stage delivering a line you know is supposed to be funny, taking the beat for the laugh, and…crickets.

L-R: Adrienne Visnic, Anita Barone, Meredith Patterson, Cynthia
Ferrer and Jenna Coker-Jones

Stephen Gifford’s cool, upscale set design with its white lattice panels and button tufted insets stretches expansively across the width of the Falcon Theatre stage. Its clean sophistication makes a perfect contrast to the cattiness of the wives. Jean-Yves Tessier manipulates the lighting to polish and enhance Gifford’s clean lines while defining even the smallest of stage areas used for a scene. Against this uptown vibe, David Kay Mickelsen’s figure-flattering costumes provide bright pops of color to match each housewife’s personality.

On the outside, The Real Housewives of Toluca Lake: The Musical may resemble its television namesake, but like the shallow personalities of its leading ladies, don’t expect much substance on the inside. You won’t find it here.

L-R: Meredith Patterson, Cynthia Ferrer, Anita Barone, Jenna
Coker-Jones, and Adrienne Visnic 

L-R: Adrienne Visnic, Cynthia Ferrer, Marc Ginsburg, Anita
Barone, and Jenna Coker-Jones 

March 23 - April 24, 2016
Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside Drive
Burbank, CA 91505

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