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Theatre in Review: Curvy Widow (Westside Theatre)

Nancy Opel. Photo: Matthew Murphy

For more years than I care to remember, the presence of Nancy Opel in a production has been a gilt-edged guarantee of fun, no matter her surroundings. Her technique is as faultless as it is minimalist: A quarter turn of her head, eyes on the audience, is enough to earn a laugh. It's part of her way of making us her accomplices; there's a wicked glint in her eye, an invitation to mischief that is well-nigh irresistible. And when she takes center stage to belt out a number, she effortlessly owns the place. A practiced scene-stealer in supporting roles, she has long deserved to be the centerpiece of a vehicle devised expressly for her.

Opel finally has that vehicle in the new musical Curvy Widow, but, sadly, she's flying in coach. Not that she doesn't get some laughs: As the title character -- "Curvy Widow" is her online handle -- she complains about the cost of her husband's funeral. A friend tells her to use her Amex card. "You mean I could get miles?" she asks, all feelings of grief kicked to the curb in a sudden stab of greed. It's not a great joke, but she makes it sound better than it is. A sight gag with an oversized hormone ring that pops out of its container like a jack-in-the-box gets a robust shock laugh, thanks to her deft handling. Singing about her first sexual experience since widowhood, she takes a pause of no more than five seconds, by way of suggesting that her new lover has set some sort of bedroom speed record; it's a sly, surprising moment of sophisticated wit.

But if Opel makes the most of such opportunities, too much of Curvy Widow resists even her well-honed comic skills. Bobby Goldman's book is based on her own experiences following the death of her husband, James Goldman, author of The Lion in Winter and Follies. Opel's character, named Bobby, is the busy owner of a construction company, the sort of person who is never happier than when barreling through a to-do list, managing crises without turning a hair. Stunned by the loss of her husband (named James) and urged on by her therapist -- - who basically tells her that she needs to get laid -- she enters the brave new world of Match.com and other, less reputable, hookup sites, earning quite a few notches on her belt before concluding, during the inevitable self-empowerment-themed eleven o'clock number, that she is "a work in progress" and needs more time to concentrate on herself.

In real life, Goldman manages her late husband's works, but all that time spent hanging around revivals of Follies hasn't yielded any musical theatre tips. The book of Curvy Widow consists of crashingly obvious gags seemingly cribbed from somebody's opening act in Vegas. Complaining that everyone in her uptown neighborhood vacates the city during the summer, she cracks, "If you collapsed on the street during July no one would find your body till after Labor Day." Sneaking into a pharmacy to buy a box of condoms -- dressed like the heroine of a spy thriller, complete with hat and big sunglasses - she notes that, back in the day, "Nice girls had diaphragms." Noting her unreadiness to join the dating pool, she says, "The last time I was on a date a shrimp cocktail cost a buck fifty." These days, good jokes cost a lot more, too.

The songs -- music and lyrics by Drew Brody -- restate the main situation without adding anything in the way of melody or humor. "It's Not a Match," a running commentary on Bobby's boyfriends offered by her cocktail-swilling trio of girlfriends (Andrea Bianchi, Elizabeth Ward Land, and Aisha De Haas), at least has an infectious beat, although it is built around a series of dumb bad-date gags. The low point is "Gynecologist Tango," in which Bobby seeks the right solution for vaginal dryness. That's a sentence I never thought I'd ever have to write.

Peter Flynn's direction mostly involves moving the cast around Opel, which he does handily enough; on the other hand, there often is a certain amount of dead air between the conclusion of a number and the start of a scene. Also, he hasn't gotten the best work out of his designers: In trying to accommodate a variety of locations, Rob Bissinger's set ends up looking like the lobby of a downtown hotel. Matthew Richards' lighting is fine enough in the book scenes but tends toward the garish during some of the numbers. On the plus side, Brian Hemeseth's costumes are solid, especially in terms of finding an attractive look for Opel, and the sound design, by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, is clear and unobtrusive.

Curvy Widow, the latest in a wild and woolly lineup of summertime silly season offerings, is probably aimed at the girls-night-out audience, and who's to say it won't succeed on that level. But can't somebody write a good musical for Nancy Opel? I promise you, such an effort would be rewarded, many times over. -- David Barbour

(3 August 2017)

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