“Having It All,” which opened Saturday at the Laguna Playhouse, is both a reality check and a feel-good musical for women old enough to realize that feminism’s lofty goals don’t always trump life’s slings and arrows.
The title is taken from a 1982 book by the late Helen Gurley Brown that set the standard for female success. Its thesis was full of the confidence of the era: Women should aspire to excel in business, love, family and whatever other arena they set their sights on.
We live in more realistic times. Women have achieved a lot in three decades, but lifelong multitasking and the expectation of universal and continual success can take a lot out of even the most ambitious.
That sober reassessment permeates “Having It All,” which places five women, all strangers to one another, in an airport lounge at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport during a long afternoon and evening of flight delays, power outages and other inconveniences that force them to interact.
The premise is a little too conveniently sitcom-ish, and the show begins as glibly as a “Sex in the City” episode. We’re introduced to each character in turn with a multiverse song, “In Her Shoes/This Time,” in which everyone makes shallow assumptions about everyone else based on what is (or isn’t) on her feet.
Thankfully, “Having It All” goes much deeper than that, no doubt because it sprang from the author’s life. It was conceived by Wendy Perelman, a former actress whose frustrating experiences balancing career and motherhood inspired her to create a vehicle for her thoughts and feelings. The songs were penned by her friend, frequent Disney composer John Kavanaugh, with lyrics by David Goldsmith and a book by Perelman and Goldsmith.
“Having It Almost” debuted in 2006 in New York. A revised version with a slightly tweaked name impressed critics and audiences during its debut last year at the NoHo Arts Center. That production, crisply directed by Richard Israel, comes to Laguna featuring four of the five original cast members: Lindsey Alley, Kim Huber, Shannon Warne and Jennifer Leigh Warren. Michelle Duffy replaces Alet Taylor.
The women are all veteran performers with impressive experience on New York and Los Angeles stages, and they’re clearly enjoying the heck out of the show.
Warne plays Amy, the most autobiographical role: a harried housewife with two young boys who has regrets about abandoning her acting career for minivan motherhood.
Duffy is Carly, a serene, single and carefree yoga instructor who is flying to Hawaii for a wild weekend with an ex-boyfriend.
Huber is Lizzie, a corn-fed Indiana girl whose picture-perfect marriage lacks just one little ingredient: children. She is returning home from New York after seeking fertility treatment there.
Alley is Sissy, a neurotic Jewish writer who has been given a $15,000 advance from Random House for a nonfiction book that is way overdue.
Warren is Julia, a high-powered PR executive in the midst of a high-stakes business deal. Glued to her cell phone, barking orders to her assistant, husband and teenage daughter, she’s in no mood to spend some girl time in an airport lounge.
But events conspire to push the girls together, and, of course, they bond. Each has a story, and some harbor big secrets – perfect fodder for Sissy’s book. (That’s another device that some might find shopworn: the Confessional Moment.)
The evening is full of well-crafted, character-revealing songs, some of them memorable: Sissy’s “Story of My Life,” Lizzie’s “A Baby for Bobby and Me,” Amy’s “Picture of a Dream.” The songs, and their effortlessly professional delivery by five exemplary musical-theater performers, are the best part of “Having It All.” It’s a treat to see this much seasoned female talent on one stage, and the moments of five-part harmony are glorious. There are no weak links in this powerhouse cast.
As the wait wears on and successive disasters test the women’s patience, the masks come off, confrontations brew and, late in the play, a high-stakes situation materializes. Though you can see it coming for a country mile, there’s no denying the emotional impact of the story’s climax – the result of first-rate and mutually generous ensemble acting as well as a creative team that knows this genre intimately.