16 September 2016
With such a small cast and situated within the intimate Trafalgar Studios, Vanities: The Musical relies strongly on its trio of female leads. Lauren Samuels, Ashleigh Gray and Lizzy Connolly certainly deliver deft and formidable performances as the central characters of Mary, Kathy and Joanne—a closely-knit group of friends who begin as peppy cheerleaders, only to be dogged to various degrees by the weight of life. Their evolving relationships provide some of the key notes of interest within the show and the vocals are sound throughout the performance; however, their charm cannot move the story away from its well-trodden, predictable and largely forgettable ‘coming of age’ path that we’ve all seen before. Sadly, Vanities: The Musical is as skin-deep and glossy as its characters. Some of its jokes may land, but it ultimately stands as a rather unremarkable addition to the off-West End scene.
The story begins with three popular teenage cheerleaders at high school in an early-sixties, Americana-heavy town. Kathy (Ashleigh Gray) is super-organised and the group’s planner. Mary (Lauren Samuels) is a confident extrovert. Joanne (Lizzy Connelly) is a somewhat brash but otherwise sweet southern girl. Initially excited at the prospects that life has to offer, the musical follows the group at different stages of their lives, moving forward a few years with each act. The passing of time sees the girls moving further away from one another, following the different paths offered by the incipient counter-culture. Mary embraces the sexual revolution of the 1960s and opens an erotic gallery. Joanne becomes a housewife. And Kathy occupies the role of the generally disenfranchised post-modern youth. Though there are some interesting areas into which these stories could delve, Vanities: The Musical mostly skirts around them. Characters slowly evolve into something more akin to stereotypes than anything interesting as the plot plods along toward its inevitable resolution. Joanne is the main point of comic relief, and Lizzy Connelly does do a great job in her deadpan remarks framed in a southern drawl. These moments are, however, few and far apart on the landscape of its derivative subject.
Interspersed between the scenes are some light-hearted and somewhat entertaining tunes, which shift from the well-choreographed ‘An Organised Life’ to the more sorrowful ‘Cute Boys with Short Haircuts’. All the songs are well-performed by the three leads, with some playful throwbacks to various musicals and pop hits of old, yet they tend to sound quite similar to one another and are difficult to recall after the performance. The vocal performances are often powerful, providing the main source of enjoyment that the show has to offer. These are framed by a small set, which mirrors the dressing room of the three girls and serves several purposes as different locations in the show’s narrative. Though largely working well and making use of the three-sided stage (with audience placed on each), it is difficult at times to see what is going on due to the positioning. The minimalist set and lack of stage crew also lead to some lengthy vamping sections as the three leads set up each scene, which often gets in the way of the pacing.
In all, Vanities: The Musical is much more about the performances than the actual narrative. The three female leads do a solid job with that they have, though it is a shame the show is so unremarkable in its storytelling and lacks any note of poignancy in its subtext. The score is enjoyable, if a little repetitive, although it is sure to appeal to those who enjoy its Hairspray-esque motif. By no means bad at all, but not great either, Vanities: The Musical is your average ‘coming of age’ tale, albeit imbued with some solid vocal performances.