The 90-minute show has been playing at New York's Playhouse 91 on the Upper East Side for a couple of years, and the American Heartland Theatre is its latest host. The Heartland has already announced an extension of Menopause's Kansas City run.
Given the enthusiastic response of a recent sold-out house, Menopause obviously has no trouble amusing its target audience. Before the show even begins, the Heartland's atmosphere emits a warning to get on board or get out. The theater has the feel of a church revival, with ushers hawking "hot-flash fans" for a dollar. The bar serves hot-flash drinks.
For all this preshow hilarity, however, Jeanie Linders' script never lets you forget that her subject is a study in misery. This show could just as easily be called Slow Death: The Musical for all the references to night sweats, sexless marriages and cottage cheese thighs. The consequences of estrogen depletion have seldom been this vividly (and mortifyingly) depicted. And the women seated around me seemed to find them all screamingly funny.
Menopause follows four women of a certain age who meet in the lingerie department of Bloomingdale's on their coincidentally unanimous mission: finding the perfect black lace bra. But these four wouldn't be friends anywhere else but in a musical revue. Debra Bluford plays Earth Mother, a free-spirited peacenik who, seemingly against type, wants a bra. Licia Watson is her high-maintenance opposite: Soap Star, a vain Susan Lucciesque actress who fears being written off her show as the wrinkles creep across her brow.
Chavez Ravine, an extraordinary talent, plays Power Woman, an executive whose directive into her cell phone of "Refax the order!" has the stern urgency of General Patton. Jacqueline Reilly rounds out the foursome playing the most stereotypical (and annoying) of the characters, Iowa Housewife, whose periwinkle suit suggests a pastel-colored sausage casing.
The ladies are in that time of life Linders calls "the secret passage." It's not secret for long, though, as the 28 song parodies created from familiar pop songs illustrate. Linders has rewritten the lyrics of oldies such as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and "Stayin' Alive" -- but often quite badly. She could have used the balance a cowriter might have provided. The results are along the lines of tripe like I'm packin' on pounds where I didn't have spaces (to the tune of "Lookin' for Love in All the Wrong Places") and This is your day (set to the Village People's chorus of "Y.M.C.A."). It's as if she fell in love with her first thought without considering the benefit of a second.
Until the last twenty minutes of the show, the jokes are stale or outright stolen; Linders should credit Joan Rivers for her recycled line about applying food directly to one's thighs. A quick reading between the musty one-liners about ladies banishing their husbands to the spare bedroom reveals not-so-funny insights into America's rate of marital infidelity.
It is without warning, then, that the show takes a pleasurable turn into the joys of self-pleasure. "Good Vibrations" becomes, without too much lyrical alteration, a salute to the battery-operated appliances that we all know aren't for back spasms. When Reilly sings and moans "Only You" to her thick microphone, she practically goes down on the thing.
By far, the show's best moment arrives with Ravine's delicious Tina Turner takeoff. Continuing in the same vein, her "What's Love Got to Do With It" proves that sometimes an orgasm is indeed the point. At that moment, Ravine, a terrific singer with mammoth stage presence, steals the show.
Musical director Anthony Edwards and his band -- Tod Barnard on percussion and Theodore Wilson on bass -- keep the tunes bubbling along, true to their original packaging. And the actors have such a constant connection to their characters that even the most bloodless of Linders' parodies is delivered with spunk amid Patty Bender's ceaselessly inventive choreography. If the cast can generate some warmth from this material, one wonders what they might do with something that really turned up the sweat.