‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – A New Musical’ at American University


Talent on the Verge

American University’s Department of Performing Arts is currently presenting the Washington DC premier of the Broadway musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Although this new musical had a relatively short life on Broadway with a star-studded cast (including Patti LuPone and Brian Stokes Mitchell) to boot, it offers one of the finest musical scores (by David Yazbek, who also wrote scores for Broadway’s The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) for a musical in recent years.

Women on the Verge is an ambitious show to perform, featuring an ensemble of 18 actors, often needing to frantically move from place to place as part of the show’s action, and a hard-working orchestra with 11 musicians. Despite a few sound problems and a couple uneven performances, the show came across sounding and looking great overall thanks to the talented cast, designers, and the terrific orchestra, and surely it will sound even better over the course of the run of the show. Kudos to Director Carl Menninger for his excellent direction of this large ensemble.

Kendra McNulty (Candela). Photo by Meriam Salem/AU Photo Collective.
Kendra McNulty (Candela). Photo by Meriam Salem/AU Photo Collective.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is based on the iconic 1988 Spanish-language film of the same name that put Pedro Almodovar on the international map. As noted above, David Yazbek composed the score while the book was written by Jeffrey Lane. A tribute to post-Franco Madrid, Women on the Verge follows 48 hours in the life of an actress, Pepa (Izzy Smelkinson), after her lover and co-actor, Ivan (Jesse Saywell), mysteriously leaves her with no explanation. The musical follows Pepa’s search for Ivan while at the same time, Ivan’s ex-wife, Lucia (Linda Bard) is in the process of suing her ex-husband for his desertion of her 20-years earlier. Meanwhile, Ivan’s and Lucia’s son Carlos (Patrick Kavanagh, who along with Saywell have fine voices) and his fiancée, Marisa (Kendall Helblig), are seeking an apartment to move into, which leads them to Pepa’s newly listed apartment. And on the top of all this mayhem, Pepa’s dear friend, Candela (Kendra McNulty) realizes she is dating a Shi’ite terrorist and seeks Pepa’s help with her dilemma. Chaos ensues when all of these stories intersect.

Director Menninger envisioned Pepa’s dilemma as similar to a Rubik’s cube, and Scenic Designer Meghan Raham leverages this creative concept in her brilliant staging — a multi-color set made up of square and rectangles and angles comprising three levels for the plays’ crazy action. The set cleverly slides and opens up to create new locations with the help of cubes and other prop shapes used as furniture. The colorful period costumes by Barbara Tucker Parker enhance the delightfully chaotic atmosphere.

The women of ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.’ From left to right: Linda Bard, Kendra McNulty, Izzy Smelkinson, Kendall Helblig, and  Nia Calloway.' Photo by Murugi Thande.
The women of ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.’ From left to right: Linda Bard, Kendra McNulty, Izzy Smelkinson, Kendall Helblig, and Nia Calloway.’ Photo by Murugi Thande.

Sophomore Izzy Smelkinson does a good job as Pepa, her vocals improving significantly in the second act at my performance. I especially liked her “Mother’s Day”  and “Lie to Me,” both beautiful ballads. My only real complaint about her, as well as for the generally strong Kendra McNulty as Candela, is that they do not inflect Spanish dialect into their line readings and vocals. The lack of accent undermines the ethnic Spanish flavor of the show. Thankfully señora Linda Bard does an excellent job as Lucia, combining an authentic sounding Spanish accent with masterful vocals. Bard is especially great in the poignant numbers, “Time Stood Still” and “Invisible.” Other standout performances include Senior Kendall Helblig as Marisa and Jesse D. Saywell as Ivan, both featuring lovely voices.

The delightful musical score is ably performed by the fine orchestra. Special kudos must be given to percussionist Emma Martin and drummer Jon Laine, that give the orchestrations their lively passionate beat underscoring the show’s wonderfully chaotic and life-affirming tone.

Don’t miss the chance to see one of the great new Broadway musicals from the past few years performed by a talented ensemble of actors and musicians right here in DC at American University.

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Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown plays through October 25, 2014 at the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre – 4200 Wisconsin Avenue in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 885-2587, or purchase them online.

Meet the Director and Cast of American University’s ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’: Meet Director Carl Menninger.


  1. Douglas’ review perfectly reflects my enjoyment of this play. The program tells us that Almovadar worked as a temporary telephone operator and uses phones a lot. You will love the number when Pepa gets many phone messages while she waits for a different call. It is funny, energetic and wonderful.
    Note that matinees are only on Saturday. The renovated theatre is a great venue and easy to get to, near the Tenleytown Metro.


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