Off-Broadway Review: WOMAN OF THE YEAR (J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company at Theater Row)

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by Tony Frankel on April 17, 2023

in Theater-New York


I’m jealous of New York Musical lovers. If they want to catch a rarely produced musical from the “golden age” of Broadway (the dates of “golden age” tend to blur), they have the J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company. And unlike the Los Angeles companies which can only do a one-night stand with scripts in their hands (Actors Equity doesn’t allow for showcase contracts there), J2 offers a fully staged memorized run. with costumes, sets (well…), and dancing.

I wasn’t sure what to expect on the small stage at Theater Row for Woman of the Year, which opened last Friday. Well, call me shocked. It was delightful. Based on the MGM film by Ring Lardner, Jr. and Michael Kana (starring Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn) the 1981 hit starring Lauren Bacall (and later Raquel Welch) is still a hit in 2023. This is the first NY production since it opened in 1981 when it won Tonys for both Peter Stone’s still-funny book and Kander & Ebb’s phenomenally catchy score. It’s so rare these days to float out of a theater actually singing a tune (the delightful chorus number “It Isn’t Working” was my favorite earworm) — actually, many songs.

Janine LaManna and John Leone

The tale? New York TV personality Tess Harding receives an award for Woman of the Year, but she’s pissed that new hubby Sam Craig, a cartoonist, didn’t show up. She looks back about six months to the events leading to her troubled relationship, when she put down cartoonists in an editorial. Playing poker, Sam and his funny-paper buddies watch this. Sam goes to Tess’s office and … they fall in love. While her secretary Gerald and opinionated German housekeeper Helga aren’t buying it, everything seems right — until career clashes crush the couple’s cravings. Act II has Tess rethinking what a relationship entails. Will they end up together?

Janine LaManna

Tess is a huge leading role, and I was gobsmacked that Broadway player Janine Lamanna not only memorized that much material, but sold it with a kind of blasé brassiness which really worked. Since sophisticate Tess knows the most famous people in the world, we wonder if that tinge of blasé is part of Tess’s act. And by god, when she made her appearance at curtain in costumer DW’s shimmery silver fitted dress, singing why she deserves this award while the chorus backstage sings, “Chirp, chirp, chirp” — you know you’re in musical comedy heaven. And, startlingly, the show doesn’t feel that dated. Many of the names she drops are still in the public’s awareness (Nixon, Nehru, etc.), and two-career marriages are still not easy.

Sarah Mackenzie Baron, Rebecca Spigelman, Kelly Lester

This show dazzles because Stone added many comic relief characters to break up the long romance, as it were. Eric Michael Gillett was dutifully deadpan and purposely pompous as Secretary Gerald. Rebecca Spigelman was uproarious, rearranging her face into an evil villain sneer as the dominatrix of the household, German housekeeper Helga. Together, they tore down the house with “I Told You So.” But when they joined the distinctive, awesome-sounding chorus (Music Director Miles Plant) for the thrilling “It Isn’t Working,” I promise it was nirvana. After the show, my husband started complaining about the weather. I started singing, “It isn’t working.” Memorable tunes like that are tough to come by these days.

The Company of Woman of the Year

Another side character is Alexi, a ballet dancer who has decided to defect from the Soviet Union. In an interview, Tess wonders why he changes his mind about defecting, and tall-drink of water Jake Urban who, I believe, kicked higher than the light grid, executed Deidre Goodwin’s tough ballet moves while keeping up a ridiculously over-happy persona with “Happy in the Morning.” And then there’s the eleven-o’clock-number role, the suburban wife who lives in Colorado (perfect kitchen set and “working oven” by designer Joshua Warner), now married to Tess’s ex (an amazing role reversal by Gillett). When they compare lives in “The Grass Is Always Greener,” funny Kelly Lester brought tears to my eyes with her deeply droll delivery of how hard it is being a housewife, especially compared to Tess. As the song says, “That’s wonderful!” And in the “No Small Parts” department, Sarah McKenzie Baron was hilarious as an evil spy ballet mistress.

John Leone and Janine LaManaa

The most beautiful ballad in this or any other show is “Sometimes a Day Goes By,” during which Sam laments the absence of Tess. Even though pianist Griffin Strout and Synthist Jacob Cannon were too soft under Meghan Doyle’s bass and Nicholas Uranic’s drums, they were a great band; and even though John Leone played Sam a bit more like bedraggled detective than impassioned artist, he was wholly sincere; and even though Leone’s voice was wavering, he would find his groove and we got his rich baritone. I couldn’t have been happier.

This is a gigantic show to pull off, and hitches were rare to none opening night. Director Robert W. Schneider pulled a rabbit out of the musical comedy hat with this one. Do. Not. Miss. It.

photos by Russ Rowland

Woman of the Year
J2 Spotlight Theatre Company
Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street
ends on April 23, 2023
for tickets, visit J2 Spotlight NYC
next shows, Sugar (April 27 – May 7), and The Goodbye Girl (May 11 – May 21).

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