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Review: ‘Death Becomes Her’ has retro comedic charm but needs more emotional connection

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The 1992 Robert Zemeckis movie “Death Becomes Her” is the kind of wild, slightly unhinged thriller-satire of Hollywood divas, plastic surgery and the cult of youth that would never get made today, and more’s the pity. It not only grossed $150 million, its famous special effects became a staple of hoot-and-holler gay bar video screens replaying Meryl Streep’s discombobulated noggin and Goldie Hawn’s shot-through body with its peek-a-boo hole.  Ah, the days before ubiquitous digital manipulation spoiled all that fun forever.

Now comes the movie-into-musical, which opened Sunday night in its Chicago tryout in advance of a fall Broadway berth with the boffo Broadway stars Megan Hilty and Jennifer Simard as the two frenemies Madeline and Helen, one a fading actress, the other a jealous writer. They get mixed up with the same weasel-like plastic surgeon (Christopher Sieber) as well as with Michelle Williams’ Viola Van Horn, a sorceress who promises the two scheming women eternal youth.

This clever show was written by Marco Pennette and directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, and features music and lyrics from the very talented newcomer team of Julia Mattison and Noel Carey. It has some crowd-pleasing strengths, including a genuinely funny book, a swirling, retro, filmic score that features a knockout two-pronged 11 o’clock number for Hilty and Simard, and its best numbers put you in mind of Burt Bacharach and John Barry (no Ingrid Michaelson-like experiments here to confound future Tony Award nominators). There’s a lush physical production from set designer Derek McLane in an old school, drape-heavy “Producers”-like mode and a stellar cast. (Most unusually for this size of Broadway musical, there are just four designated principal roles, so the talented members of the ensemble surely earn their paychecks.) But there’s much work to be done overall if the show is to appeal to people who don’t have prior affection for the source.

The main problem is that the love-hate relationship between the two stars is pivotal and you lose track of it somewhere toward the end of the first act. The thread takes far too long to re-engage, partly because the rules of the show keep changing when it comes to, say, the danger of the weaponry or the pain of the betrayals. The second problem is that while the material well serves Simard, Hilty’s starring role is underwritten. This justly admired actress wins over the audience in a matter of moments, but the book then makes it difficult for her to retain that crucial element of empathy on which this show relies.

The idea of two oppositely oriented women beginning as friends, falling apart and wreaking havoc and finally rediscovering each other in the face of a cruel world hardly is new on Broadway, as fans of “Wicked,” “Side Show” and “War Paint” well know. The device is a musical staple because it works — as long as the audience remains emotionally connected to both parties.

“Death Becomes Her,” which begins with Williams’ Viola rising up from the floor in storyteller mode with a smashing, scene-setting opening number, gets going like gangbusters as we see Madeline’s career falling apart via a fabulously bad Broadway production number and a humiliating, “Bullets Over Broadway”-like advertisement, between which she snipes at the geeky, embittered Helen, whose husband she promptly seduces. Those first few minutes truly are a knockout: PG-13 funny, alive and fearlessly old-school.  And the show’s final scene is equally good: funny and emotionally rich, as last scenes have to be, but also surprising in how deviates from the movie.

But in between, the musical encounters the treacherous waters of a caper movie plot for which it has all too little time. Huge comic talents both, Simard and Hilty are ideally cast but the show needs to better understand it’s their relationship that delights audiences, not replicating the effects from the movie at the expense of veracity. In all fairness, this is a difficult movie to put on a stage and the show is filled with fun, inventive ideas and effects. But its plot is harder to follow than probably most of the creatives realize. At the end of the night, what we seek in a musical is an emotional trajectory, in this case on the part of two struggling, insecure but lovable characters for whom we come to care.

  • Jennifer Simard, Christopher Sieber, Megan Hilty and Michelle Williams in...

    Jennifer Simard, Christopher Sieber, Megan Hilty and Michelle Williams in “Death Becomes Her” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago. (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

  • Michelle Williams and cast in "Death Becomes Her” at the...

    Michelle Williams and cast in “Death Becomes Her” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago. (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

  • Megan Hilty and Jennifer Simard in "Death Becomes Her" at...

    Megan Hilty and Jennifer Simard in “Death Becomes Her” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago. (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

  • Christopher Sieber in "Death Becomes Her" at the Cadillac Palace...

    Christopher Sieber in “Death Becomes Her” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago. (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

  • Michelle Williams and Taurean Everett in "Death Becomes Her" at...

    Michelle Williams and Taurean Everett in “Death Becomes Her” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago. (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

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At this juncture, “Death Becomes Her” leans too heavily into camp; frankly, that’s the easy part and that job’s already done. Broadway fans will love all the spoofy Easter eggs in the score (like nods to “Beauty and the Beast” romanticism and the Javert “Les Mis” bridge), the insider jokes and Williams’ dry, droll self-parodying of her diva persona.  The harder part now is setting an established set of rules around murder and seduction (the level of realism never feels consistent), and getting a live audience to believe that Madeline and Helen first are mild rivals, then try to kill each other, and then they come to care for each other again.

One weird aspect of all of this is that the potion they drink makes them younger, we are told, yet they don’t seem to shed any years. In fact, the two look the same throughout the show (fabulous throughout, of course), even though the plot keeps telling us something different. That’s all very hard to pull off, especially these cautious days, but it’s baked into this title and the show still has not figured it out.  I think the costume design is likely the key: the fashion is very glam and exciting (the whole show looks great) but the gowns sometimes seem to belie youth when they could and should do otherwise. Simard in particular seems to get stuck with yard after yard of fabric that she has to move around.

Hilty’s Madeline also needs a break or two, in this case from zinging one-liners, expertly delivered as they are, and more time to live and breathe with her adoring theater audience. That’s true of the show as a whole. Comedic strength and musical charm bookend the night, but the midriff needs surgery. And I don’t mean of the plastic variety.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “Death Becomes Her”

When: Through June 2

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Tickets: $31.50-$166.50 at www.broadwayinchicago.com

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Chris Jones , 2024-05-20 07:36:05

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