by Samuel L. Leiter
Judging by the piece about Curvy Widow in the current issue of Playbill, which notes that it “has been on the express track, taking just eight months from its launch in Asheville, North Carolina, to a New York premiere,” you’d never know that this autobiographical Off-Broadway show with seven actors began in Atlanta in 2007 as a critically crushed, one-woman play. One reason it bombed was its star, quintessential shiksa Cybill Shepherd playing a Jewish widow in her mid-50s hoping to burn up the fuel remaining in her sex tank.
Since then, the show, by Bobby (Barbara) Goldman, widow of Academy Award-winning screenwriter/playwright James Goldman (The Lion in Winter, Follies), has been totally transformed into a raunchy, occasionally funny, but clichéd, 85-minute musical. Goldman’s book is performed to the amusing lyrics and pleasantly generic music of Drew Brody; director Peter Flynn keeps the show hopping with occasional assistance from choreographer Marcos Santana.
Broadway veteran Nancy Opel plays the wealthy, bubbly, too-cute-for-words Bobby, who, after Jim (Ken Land), her famous-writer husband of over thirty years dies, becomes so depressed that her besties, Caroline (Andrea Bianchi), Heidi (Elizabeth Ward Land), and Joan (Aisha De Haas), push all sorts of pills on her. It’s the family shrink (Alan Muraoka), however, who inspires her life-changing decisions.
One is to move from her elegant Fifth Avenue digs to a downtown loft, which, as head of her own construction company, she totally renovates. Another, after she begins overeating, is to consider stuffing something other than her face. When Bobby turns to Match.com (and an “adult” dating site: cue the “dick pic” jokes)—where her user name is “Curvy Widow”—we discover the show’s principal goal: the comical repercussions of matchmaking in the Internet age. When the responses begin pouring in and Bobby has to choose her dates, she sings one of the show’s best comical numbers, “The Rules for Whittling Down.”
Bobby doesn’t hold back much about her libidinous nature, so what follows as she explores the online dating scene is unabashedly bawdy, especially after the shrink insists that “getting laid is a medical directive.” Some loud laughs explode now and then (the more tasteless the gag the bigger the response) although this reviewer mustered only modest chuckles. Goldman even divulges personal gal things, like the aftermath of a painful escapade that provides humor regarding a ginormous hormone ring and a medical miracle called Vagifem that makes a gynecologist (Christopher Shyer) her hero.
But the show takes a precipitous dive into incongruous dopiness during a pharmacy scene when Bobby and a friend behave with ridiculous childishness when shopping for condoms. Also not particularly helpful is the tired conceit of having the ghost of Bobby’s husband wandering in and out, cigar in hand and wearing a fancy dressing robe, to express his displeasure with the pleasure she’s getting from her newfound love life.
Much of Curvy Widow’s appeal comes from the doll-faced Opel, her hair a bright, white bob that makes her look older than the script’s 55. She’s onstage throughout as her versatile supporting ensemble of six plays multiple caricaturish roles around her, nicely aided by Brian Hemesmeth’s many costumes. She herself wears black slacks and a tank top, allowing lots of changes by merely donning another colorful top. The ensemble also shoves the furniture around on Rob Bissinger’s attractive set, well lit by Matthew Richards, which features a hidden bed that rolls on and off as needed.
Opel, who delivers much of her good-natured performance directly to the audience, and whose personal adorableness goes a long way to cutting down the potential sleaze factor, has a big voice that can belt a song as well as finesse it for pathos. Some numbers, though, seem under-served by the three-musician (piano, cello, drums/percussion), offstage band.
I didn’t agree with the decision Bobby makes that brings about the show’s conclusion, but, to my surprise, my plus-one, a 53-year-old divorcée whose online dating capers parallel (albeit on other sites) those on view in Curvy Widow, felt otherwise. I won’t reveal what it is but perhaps you’ll come away considering it yourself, especially if Match, J-Date, E-Harmony, OurTime, or something similar brought you to the Westside Theatre.
Curvy Widow. Through October 15 at The Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). www.westsidetheatre.com
Photos: Matthew Murphy