Menopause the Musical

at the Apollo Theater

Middle-aged women are daffy, depressed, forgetful, unattractive, prone to irrational mood swings, and unable to have good relationships with their mothers or daughters. At least that’s what Jeanie Linders suggests in her revue Menopause the Musical. These aren’t what you’d call uplifting messages–yet by the end of opening night, some women had not only given the show a standing ovation, they’d joined the cast for the group kick line scripted as the grand finale.

This is deeply disturbing.

Press materials indicate that Linders, who’s also the producer, hopes her show will be another Vagina Monologues, which recently closed at the Apollo after running there for a couple years. But Eve Ensler didn’t just natter on about women’s private parts. She told individual stories, based on interviews, that revealed women’s rich, complex feelings about sex, body image, men, and relationships. She celebrated specific women, and in doing so connected with women generally.

Not only does Menopause the Musical not celebrate women, it tears them down bit by bit, reducing them to symptoms: hot flashes, chocolate cravings, emotional outbursts. Perhaps Linders was actually aiming for such superficiality–she gives her four thin characters stereotypes for names: Power Woman, Soap Star, Earth Mother, and Iowa Housewife. They meet during a catfight over a black bra at a Bloomingdale’s lingerie sale. Hurling underwear, they seem to hate one another–until they realize in the restroom that all of them are in menopause. (Cue that surefire laugh, the flushing toilet.) From then on the show, each scene on a different floor of the store, is nothing but song after song detailing “the change.” It’s like listening to a stranger on the bus drone on about her sciatica–not interesting, not funny, and certainly not worth $46.50.

So why were women cheering? Perhaps it was the nostalgia factor. The 24 song parodies are set to catchy, familiar tunes supposedly beloved by baby boomers, like Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” The audience greeted each song with applause. The lyrics squeezed into them, though, are teeth-grindingly dull and sometimes borderline offensive; the choreography, by codirector Patty Bender, is only a step above amateur. To the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” the women sing, “I wish we all could be sane and normal girls.” To Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave” they croon: “I’m having a hot flash / A tropical hot flash / My personal summer is really a bummer / I’m having a hot flash.” This is not an improvement on the original, and it’s certainly not a clever comment on menopause.

Perhaps women in the audience were cheering because as a culture we’ve lost our grip on what constitutes real humor and real emotion. Bender and codirector Kathryn Conte fall back on slick sitcom timing, signaling punch lines that get laughs whether they’re funny or not. When Soap Star grimaces because she’s having a hot flash, the face she makes tells us to guffaw. When women complain for more than an hour, then appear in evening gowns, that must signal an emotional transformation of some sort: applaud.

Ordinary women talking endlessly about their hot flashes or mood swings are not interesting. And suddenly announcing without warning that they have “a new attitude” toward menopause shouldn’t lead to a standing ovation.

The actresses do what they can with this ridiculous material. Lisa Steinman, who plays Soap Star, conveys both the confidence and vulnerability of someone whose livelihood depends on looking young and beautiful. As Iowa Housewife, the sunny Michelle Lee Bradley shows a talent for physical comedy, and as Power Woman (which means, one supposes, that she’s an executive), Wydetta Carter has a knockout voice. As Earth Mother, Judith Day exudes wry warmth. Still, the performers can’t save a show that’s essentially a testament to all the ways women are incompetent.

Women cheered at the end of The Vagina Monologues because they were moved and enlightened. And they cheered at the end of Menopause the Musical because they’d been cued by the appearance of evening dresses. The changes menopause brings deserve a thoughtful, engaging, fresh response. This isn’t it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin.