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Theatre in Review: Shoes and Baggage (The Cell)

Cheryl Stern. Photo: Michael Bonasio

Cheryl Stern, an actress and writer, is also a self-described "under-earner and over-spender" who never saw a sale she didn't like. (The words quoted come from her one and only appearance at Debtors Anonymous.) Shoes and Baggage is her confessional account of an up-and-down show business career made more perilous by her nonexistent sale resistance. Prepping for an audition, she purchases a $200 cobalt blue sweater that she describes as "very elongating;" repenting, she tries to return it -- and exits with it in hand, plus a pair of black jeans and a yellow top -- total price: $650. An epiphany in the Louis Vuitton store sets her on a multi-year, multi-bag buying binge. All too often, her career triggers her worst tendencies. Cast in the role of Gorgeous Teitelbaum in Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig, she can't stop obsessing about the imitation Chanel suit made for her character to wear. The best thing about being in the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles is working with "a bevy of shopaholic drag queens." She adds, "During previews, the Cagelles have their boxes from Gilt.com sent right to the theatre so their husbands/boyfriends don't see the loot. We are one!"

Married to a musician whose earned income is as uncertain as hers (and who, one assumes, has the patience of a saint), Stern dwells in a constant state of low-level panic as the bills pile up. There is, of course, psychological grounding for all of this: There's the sister who competed in beauty pageants while Stern struggled with scoliosis -- hence her fondness for "elongating" sweaters -- and a mother who is a bit of a serial shopper herself. And, like many actors, her life is informed by a certain amount of magical thinking: "I guess I believed I would ultimately be saved by my big break someday."

A very slight, but often amusing, piece, Shoes and Baggage is at its best when Stern is dispensing dishy backstage stories that merge her obsessions with the oddball details of an actress' life. Appearing in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of The Women, she finds a soulmate in Jennifer Tilly, who preps for her first preview (in which she appears nude) by running around a Christian Dior sample sale in only a G-string, trying on one "super-cute" item after another in front of other, similarly bargain-crazed customers. (Stern only just gets Tilly back to the theatre in time for the curtain.) And you've gotta love the brassy response of the director Scott Elliot when 9/11 happens and Stern frets about staging a frivolous romp about high-society divorcées for a city in mourning: "The show goes on, honey. Think of Lotte Lenya in Nazi Germany." (Say what?)

An especially zesty episode features Stern, who also works as a kind of media coach for business executives, getting hired to train the shoe designer Beverly Feldman for a gig on the Home Shopping Network. Beverly is, to put it mildly, a piece of work ("Look at my hands shaking...It's the Prozac and the Xanax, I think. They don't mix well with Wellbutrin."), and her debut performance, sitting next to an HSN hostess whose face has been Botoxed into immobility, provides plenty of fun. Shoes and Baggage is also a sometimes touching portrait of female friendship. Stern's stories about her college pal Rena, who dies young, and Karen, a magazine executive whose career is destroyed in the crash of 2008, add some melancholy shadows to her comic self-portrait.

Shoes and Baggage, which is a musical of sorts, could be made fifty percent better with the addition of better songs. Tom Kochan's melodies have some rather attractive hooks, but Stern's lyrics are at best rudimentary. A song about Coco Chanel goes like this: "Coco, Coco, classic Coco/Cunning Coco, Coco Chanel/Make me loco, take me, Coco/Wrap me in your magic spell." Unfortunately, they don't get much better than that. Indeed, the songs add so little that the show might benefit from their being removed altogether.

Still, the director, Joe Barros, has seen to it that his star has an unusually slick production. The action plays out on an all-white catwalk-style set (no scenic designer is credited) given an extra touch of glamour by Nathan Scheuer's lighting. Scheuer also provided the extensive (and amusing) projection design, a veritable torrent of images, which includes a sticker-shock inducing store receipt, a shot of Marlo Thomas in her That Girl phase (don't ask), opening night photos, fashion websites, and Facebook posts, among many others. M. Florian Staab's sound design provides subtle reinforcement along with many effects, including thunder, subway cars, traffic, and a stylized "whoosh" that signals the beginning of flashbacks to Stern's youth.

Shoes and Baggage ends on a note of self-affirmation, suggesting that Stern has finally broken her addiction; still, something tells me that she probably looks straight ahead, whistling loudly, when passing by a sample sale. In any case, she offers pleasant company for 80 minutes or so; if you're looking for a few laughs, this one constitutes a bargain. -- David Barbour

(17 May 2016)

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