Although Curvy Widow, the current production at N.C. Stage Company (onstage through Sunday, Nov. 20) had been performed a handful of times before its official world premiere last weekend, opening night came with all the crackle and excitement of a much-anticipated debut — including writer Bobby Goldman in the audience.
The musical takes its cues from Goldman’s own story — in fact, the main character, played by Nancy Opel — is called Bobby. But as personal as the tale is (a window in her mid-50s deals with grief while also embracing her new life, finding out who she is, and starting to date again — with hilarious results), it’s also universal. Life, loss, love, moving on. Oh, and sex. So much sex. In fact, despite the inherent campiness that song and dance bring to the musical format, there was real rawness and bravery throughout the script.
But this is a musical — with all the requisite choreography (by Marcos Santana), choruses and catchy refrains (music and lyrics by Drew Brody). And Curvy Widow (the show takes its title from Bobby’s dating website profile handle) makes smart use of both song and dance. The opening scene launches with the number “Life with Jim” that provides the backstory of Bobby and her wealthy writer husband. It also serves to set the audience up for the pace and cleverness of the show. While Opel plays Bobby throughout, six other cast members handle dozens of characters, shifting between roles often onstage and on-the-go, often with costume changes as simple as a switched-out jacket.
The cast also serves as stage hands, moving set pieces around as part of the show’s choreography. Not only does this onstage, in-the-action activity not detract from the show’s momentum and storyline — the fluidity actually enhances the production. Plus, the set — a room in a Manhattan apartment, looking out large picture windows onto the city skyline — is at once efficient and magnificent. Andrew Mannion is the scenic designer and Jessica Tandy Kammerud the props designer; their shared vision is an understated genius. A futon turns into two couches, the central window filed down into a murphy bed, built-in bookshelves pull out for storage and replacement of props, a desk morphs into a doctor’s examining table and an intimate cocktail bar. Lights strung like panes across the set’s windows pulse in reaction to Bobby’s interaction with her online dates — a nice touch by lighting designer CJ Barnwell.
Music is performed by a live band (Andrew David Sotomayer, Wayne Barker, Brian Tinkel and Isabel Castellvi), and the musicians also provide sound effects — both of which lend to the immediacy and energy of the show.
While the story, at the outset, could seem a little played out (middle-aged woman starts to date again) or sad (window buries husband of many years), both of those key pieces are handled with candor and originality. Early on, a bereaved and overwhelmed Bobby discusses her husband’s funeral. The mortuary representative says, “You can use American Express” to which Bobby quips, “My God, you mean I could get miles?” It is the kind of one-liner musicals are known for, but it also shows us something of Bobby’s character and resolve.
The crux of the show lies in Bobby’s decision to join Match.com and Opel’s hesitant-to-sassy transformation in the semi-bawdy title song is delightful. But as fabulous as Opel’s performance is, it’s the supporting actors who really make the show. Andrea Bianchi, Laura Dean and Mary Ann Hu serve as Bobby’s friends and associates, but also as a sort of doo-wop chorus. Their back-up singing in the bad-date song, “It’s Not a Match” is a scene-stealer.
Tom Treadwell plays Jim, and later the ghost of Jim, as well as a number of laugh-getting bad dates. Philip Hoffman is the likable shrink and a delightfully clueless first date among, other characters. He has an unforgettable comedic moment with a toupee. And Christopher Shyer, with his Mark Ruffalo good looks and other-the-top hip thrusts, is hard to look away from. He’s a believable good-hearted love interest, but he’s at his best as a sexy-suitor-turned-scoundrel. In the whirlwind of a production he makes brief-yet-effective use of nipple clamps.
That Goldman’s book doesn’t shy away from slightly raunchy talk, sexual desire, issues of aging and even menopause is refreshing. And without giving away the end, this is not necessarily a story where the heroine finds resolution in a relationship. Finding one’s self is more important to Curvy Widow than finding a new man.
WHAT: Curvy Widow: The Musical
WHERE: N.C. Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane, ncstage.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Nov. 20, Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. $16-$40; Saturday matinee tickets are $14-$30.