Jack Heifner’s play Vanities opened at New York’s Chelsea Theatre in 1976 and subsequently became one of the most successful off-Broadway productions of all time, running for just short of 2,000 performances.
Now the musical adaptation – with a script by Heifner himself and music/lyrics by David Kirshenbaum – has its London premiere. Forty years on, it has less to say about women’s place in the world and some of the characters’ life decisions are not as radical as they probably seemed in the 1970s.
We first meet Joanne, Kathy and Mary as cheerleaders at a Dallas high school in 1963. They’re about to go to college and their outlook on life has all the optimism of youth. While their dreams for the future are different, they all believe theirs is a bond that will last forever. But as we follow their journey through adulthood, the friendship is tested by the passage of time and different turns their lives take.
Although Heifner gives some historical context with passing references to Kennedy’s assassination and the fall of Nixon, it’s often a cheesy story with a couple of soap opera-like twists in the tale. But what makes Vanities work so well are the captivating performances and chemistry of the three leads.
Lizzy Connolly as Joanne is the all-American girl whose life will only be complete with a husband, kids and picket fence; Ashleigh Gray plays Kathy, a fastidious organiser of others who struggles to bring order to her own life; and Lauren Samuels is Mary, a free spirit with a cynical edge.
They move effortlessly from the impeccably timed comedy of the first act to subtle poignancy as the trials and tribulations of adult life dent that youthful optimism.
Kirshenbaum’s infectious score is a neat blend of 60s-influenced pop and show tune ballads, performed with aplomb by the three girls. And the production is superbly marshalled by director/choreographer Racky Plews in the confined space of Trafalgar Studios 2.
Ultimately, Vanities is a celebration of the enduring power of friendship, even when relationships hit bumps in the road. It’s delivered with warmth and charm by an outstanding cast, and it left me with a smile on my face — you can’t ask for more than that.
Vanities the Musical is at the Trafalgar Studios 2 until 1 October