Filichia Features: Women on The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Goes On

Filichia Features: Women on The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Goes On

He'd called and said he'd be a little late for the 10 a.m. rehearsal, so even when the clock struck 10:15 and Bernie Yvon hadn't yet arrived, no one gave it much of a thought.

By 10:30, a few started to worry.

By 10:45, most everyone was concerned.

Then someone heard on the radio that there'd been a horrific traffic accident less than a mile away. With trepidation, a staffer went to the scene of the crash and was forced to return to confirm everyone's worst fears: Yvon had been in the process of taking a left turn, had tried to beat a yellow light, and had been instantly hit and killed when a truck-driver had hoped to get through the intersection before the light turned red.

The entire Chicago theater community mourned, for the multi-Jeff Award-nominated Yvon was one of its favorite actors. That admiration extended to Theatre at the Center, a suburban playhouse in Munster, Indiana, where Yvon had already played leads in Singin' In The Rain and I DO! I DO! Now he’d been scheduled to open on Thursday as the flamboyant and eccentric unnamed Taxi Driver in Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown.

William Pullinsi, the theater’s artistic director who was also staging this musical, had to arrange for grief counseling for his cast while also looking for a replacement. Although George Andrew Wolff answered the call, Pullinsi canceled both Thursday and Friday performances to give the new actor time.

Those attending Saturday’s matinee and evening performances were given a playbill that still had Yvon’s bio as well as a picture of a smiling, full-of-life actor who was no more. Inserted in the program was a bio of Wolff, so hastily put together and printed that his name was misspelled at the top. His considerable credits finished with “This is for my dear friend, Bernie.”

Most of the theatergoers undoubtedly knew about Yvon’s death, for the accident was big news in a small town. However, if they didn’t specifically hear that the actor portraying the Taxi Driver had been killed, they may not have known that Wolff was the cast’s last-minute replacement, for he was as accomplished and secure as everyone else in the sterling cast. His responsibilities also included maneuvering his “cab” (a golf cart) around the vast stage, and he deftly handled that, too.

The Taxi Driver has a virtual solo as the show’s opener: “Madrid Is My Mama” which lets us know where the musical will take place. Many times, an actor who’s not up to an opening number causes the audience to lose faith after only a few minutes; getting the show back on track is then difficult if not impossible. Wolff, with a fun-filled smile on his moon-shaped face, stood center stage with a hands-in-pocket ease that let everyone know he had the role in his pocket. Now the hundreds in attendance were assured that they’d have a fine time.

And yet, how hard this experience must have been for all the other performers who might not have felt like doing a slam-bang, laugh-riot musical farce. Watching them cope reminded me of September 13, 2001, when Broadway resumed after not playing on 9/11 or 9/12. Considering what had just happened to the United States, I wanted to see a show that was American as possible, and that meant THE MUSIC MAN, then 17 months into a successful revival. But I wondered how the actors would feel when they had to sing "Oh, we got trouble! Right here in River City!" -- now that their city had just seen trouble unlike any of the characters or audience members could have ever imagined. Would the performers break into tears while singing? Would we start crying, too? What would happen?

As it turned out, the actors were undaunted in the face of adversity. After the show, however, when I waited at the stage door to talk to my friends Rebecca Luker and John Sloman, I saw one tear-stained performer after another come out of that door. Now and only now did they let it all out, but during the show, they wanted to give the hundred or so (and not many more) that had braved coming into the city the best possible time.

I expect that same scenario will be replicated at the stage door at Theatre at the Center for the rest of the month-long run. These stalwart pros made certain that the audience got what it had paid for and that they’d take every theatergoer away from the memory of the accident.

One performer who must be particularly hard-hit is Hollis Resnick, a Chicago theatrical legend who’d shared the stage with Yvon on many occasions. She, in fact, had suggested Women On The Verge to Pullinsi, and while he assumed that she would want to play the lead of Pepa, the voice-over artist and occasional “star” of commercials, Resnick preferred the much smaller role of Lucia, the wife of Ivan, Pepa’s lover of many years. Now, however, Ivan oh-so-inconsiderately will dump the 42-year-old who’s not getting any younger by leaving a message on her answering machine.

Well, we do hear the show must go on, and on it went. I saw Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown come across better here than it did on Broadway, where the production was so unfocused that many times we didn’t know where to look. Granted, a proscenium house still serves it better than this mammoth thrust stage, but Pullinsi smartly staged it in uncluttered fashion.

Given that we are talking about a musical based on a Spanish movie (by Pedro Almodóvar), Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown is an excellent vehicle for Latino theater groups. There are three terrific roles for women: Pepa, Lucia and Candela, Pepa’s friend who’s having troubles of her own; she’s discovered that the man she’s been dating is a terrorist and that the police now want to take in anyone who’s been associated with him.

If these weren’t good roles, would Sherie Rene Scott, Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone have wanted to play them? And while the latter two do have some Mediterranean blood, one doesn’t have to be Spanish to do the show. Brian Stokes Mitchell, the original Ivan, would have to agree.

One should have a feel for Spanish-tinged music, however. Composer-lyricist David Yazbek came up with a mélange of salsa, merengue and tango. Sometimes he gave songs a flamenco feel and sometimes he wrote, as Taxi Driver brags he can offer his customers via his car cassette player, “rock, mambo and techno pop.”

Yazbek had a marvelous brainstorm involving Candela. In the film, Pepa comes home in desperate hopes that Ivan has called her to apologize. She sees that she has a number of messages filling her tape (the show takes place in 1987), and she is optimistic as she rewinds. What’s there, however, are Candela’s 27 repeated calls of panic, ranging from a frantic “Call me back!” to an even-tempered “Are you screening?” to an indignant “I’d never not return your call!” Finally, the barrage stops, and there is the coveted call from Ivan – interrupted because the tape ran out, thanks to Candela’s rants.

How wise of Yazbek to turn this into a song for Candela, one in which we see and hear her leaving the multiple messages. “Model Behavior” goes as lickety-split fast as “Getting Married Today” from Company, and is quite the tour de force for any actress who’s lucky enough to play it. This song must be one vital reason why Benanti got a Tony nomination. Here in Indiana, Summer Naomi Smart did it just as splendidly.

But it’s really Pepa’s show, one that an actress must carry on her shoulders. Cory Goodrich was a marvel, going from a woman who thought she was nothing without a man to one who realized he was the loser for losing her. (How the audience, including the husbands, applauded when she came to that conclusion.) Goodrich dynamically delivered her four solos, and last and maybe least, showed a good arm when she threw her telephone offstage in fury, not once, but twice.

So you’ll need to have someone with good hands positioned offstage to catch the phone. In addition, you’ll have to find that golf cart, a motorcycle (albeit on training wheels) and an old-fashioned telephone booth -- the type in which Superman used to change -- that can be spun around to indicate the passage of time. Don’t forget to find a wooden duck decoy or two; these are gifts that Ivan gives his many lovers.

Ann N. Davis designed a unit set with a “Hal Prince bridge” with a second level. It’s needed, for Candela will try to throw herself off the ledge when matters become too much for her.

For costumes, you’ll shop for one Scotch, Japanese, Hawaiian, English, Arabian and Indian outfit for one number and a toreador suit for another. Get colorful shirts for the men, but if a top button comes loose from any, don’t alert your sewing crew; the shirts are supposed to let ample chest hair sneak out.

Your biggest choreographic challenge may be to find two tango dancers who can be the centerpiece of a dream ballet. There’s also an ensemble number that could be described as a less contentious “Dance at the Gym.”

And there’s a fire. Pepa is so distraught that she unthinkingly throws her lit cigarette onto her bed, and when the flames erupt, she just stands there for many too many seconds before finally deciding to douse it. Yes, she IS on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Even on Broadway, the flames flew high, but here in Indiana, nothing was made of them. Was this a one-performance mishap or a special effect that Pullinsi decided not to use? Lord knows that he, the cast and crew of Theatre at the Center had enough to think about this past week. Here’s a tribute to their resiliency and to the worth of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, too.

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at