Into the estrogen-amped summer of 2008 -- Hillary Rodham Clinton, Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Palin -- breezes "Vanities," the bright but undeclared new musical now at Pasadena Playhouse. Scheduled to open on Broadway in 2009, the show is based on Jack Heifner's long-running 1976 dramedy about a trio of white girls from Texas and features a book by Heifner and music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum ("Summer of '42").
"Vanities" is less of a story than a series of jump cuts: In four scenes, each set in a different year, we follow hyper-conformist Kathy (Anneliese van der Pol), rebellious Mary (Lauren Kennedy) and an adrift Joanne (Sarah Stiles) through changes in men, ambitions and hemlines. We see them as high school cheerleaders (1963), then approaching college graduation (1968), as restless urbanites (1974) and, finally, as mature women (1990).
Heifner's original off-Broadway play appeared in 1976, the same year as "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf," and the two pieces share a certain zeitgeist. Like Ntozake Shange's choreopoem, "Vanities" was among the first downtown shows to put modern women's fractured lives center stage.
But if "Colored Girls" paints a ferocious portrait of struggle, Heifner's sketch works as an implicit critique of the values his privileged characters blithely accept. "Vanities" was feminism seen through a compact mirror -- infinite choice handed to girls who only want to be chosen by men and sororities.
The musical takes what was most distinctive about the play -- its offhand quality, as though Heifner were listening to women instead of putting words in their mouths -- and adds production scale and song to heighten certain moments. It's tricky to add the inherent "I Want" qualities of a musical to a story about people who don't actually know what they want. Sondheim has done it, so has Michael John LaChiusa, but it's a challenging setup.
What "Vanities" has going for it is Heifner's original conceit: Being a woman can feel like a lifetime performance -- certainly in Texas -- so it's only in front of the mirror, before the makeup and the outfits go on, that a woman has the space to reflect.
Zipping through decades
The show opens with three tall vanities on a bare stage, home bases for three young women sporting '60s bouffant hair and short slips. As the play goes on, Anna Louizos' elegant set will take us from small-town Texas to Manhattan and back with a few smooth moves. As the story crosses nearly three decades, its time travel is signaled by the zip of a go-go boot or the twist of an up-do.
But one never loses the feeling that the women are trapped by their outfits rather than empowered by them. They are most themselves in their underwear and bare feet, giddy friends indifferent to the world's expectations.
"Vanities" also boasts an irresistibly winning cast. They don't necessarily exude stardom -- partly because the material doesn't give us a chance to see their full range -- but the three performers create a vivid, coherent world and convince as longtime friends.
Kennedy's sybaritic Mary provides bite and glamour (she looks smashing in Joseph G. Aulisi's costumes), Van der Pol offers a convincing portrait of a woman subdued by confusion, and comic gem Stiles gives a Holly Hunter-esque portrait of a woman whose eternal perm -- and sense of possibility -- are way too restrictive.
(All manage to dance like mad wearing Josh Marquette's appropriately over-coiffed wigs without breaking a sweat. And you know it's hot under those heavy weaves.)
Tony-winning actress Judith Ivey, working here as director, occasionally lets her actors go too broad, but for the most part she and Dan Knechtges (who did the musical staging) establish an assured sense of rhythm.
Musical director Carmel Dean leads a clean eight-piece orchestra in Kirshenbaum's uptempo songs. (The sound quality of the show is particularly good, clear and immediate without that overproduced aura that afflicts some new musicals.)
The staging and performances convey a feeling of the present moment, even if the material itself often feels canned.
But like its protagonists, "Vanities" the musical struggles to find a point of view. Its opening number, "Who Am I Today?," frames the play's central question beautifully, but then the production's vision loses clarity. You're never quite convinced that Kirshenbaum has absorbed the original play and emerged with a fully imagined musical response. That said, there are a couple of house-grabbing numbers: Mary's exhilarated farewell to sorority life, "Fly Into the Future," and Joanne's raucous "The Same Old Music," sung on a champagne binge.
The script also suffers from a superficiality that feels out of line with the characters' intelligence and the dilemmas Heif- ner puts them in. (After "Sex and the City," the bar for female badinage is fairly high.)
The creators might find more wit and texture in the dialogue and the songs without losing any of the musical's core optimism.
But the real question is, what is "Vanities"? A reassuring, light evening that affirms the power of friendship over time? Or a look at why even women with everything still struggle to define themselves?
As we move into an era in which America's sense of female power lurches between fist bumps and post-adultery news conference stoicism, "Vanities" could bring something new to the room about how different women find something in common. We'll see if Heifner, Kirshenbaum and company can define what "Vanities" really has to say about contemporary sisterhood before it hits Broadway.
"Vanities." Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. Molina Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 28. $61-$76. Contact: (626) 356-PLAY or www.pasadena- playhouse.org. Running time: 2 hours.