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Change, Change, Change

The topic is not a common subject for the stage, screen, or most any other entertainment medium. But the Cuillo Centre for the Arts' current production, Menopause: The Musical, is a cabaret-style revue about what feminist Gail Sheehy termed "the Silent Passage" and to which aunts, mothers, and grandmothers for generations have referred in hushed tones as "the change." Black, white, gay, or straight, every woman experiences it, yet ironically it is rarely discussed. Did Maude, the first "mature" woman character to have her own TV sitcom, ever do anything more than throw out a wisecrack about hot flashes? Even the Golden Girls glossed over it with a wink and a giggle. Well, writer and lyricist Jeanie Linders is making up for lost time. She has dedicated an entire play to the phenomenon. Featuring four women older than age 50 who meet in an upscale department store in New York City, Menopause: The Musical is an hour and a half of hormonal high jinks and humorous renditions of popular tunes from the '60s, '70s, and '80s. While Menopause is not sophisticated, thought-provoking theater, it is entertaining and has found a wildly enthusiastic audience (pre-, post-, and mid-menopausal women and their partners).

Together the four actresses are meant to represent a cross section of American women: earth mother Pamela O'Bannon, power executive Shelley Browne, Iowa housewife Diana Rogers, and TV soap star Wesley Williams. Sound like an all-female episode of Gilligan's Island? These characters are intentionally flat. Unlike many female-centered productions, such as Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, Menopause: The Musical does not try to create a complex portrait of the female psyche. These vaginas are not narrating; they're singing.

That said, the interesting thing about Menopause is that despite a conventional script and often-mediocre performances, the subject matter of the production is innovative and surprisingly unexplored. Even Ensler's Monologues (considered avant-garde in part because it includes mature women) doesn't really touch on menopause. Menopause: The Musical is not simply about feminism. It's about feeling good. And it has definitely found its audience. The show plays consistently to packed houses and has been extended three weeks.

While Linders's dialogue is fairly predictable, (the women say things to each other like, "Well, I never!" and "Well, maybe you should start, then!"), her lyrics constitute a clever, albeit hormonally imbalanced trip down memory lane. The musical score meticulously covers the symptoms of menopause starting with a variation on Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools." The menopausal refrain is "Change, change, change,/Change of life." The lyrics catalog the major symptoms of menopause: hot flashes (appropriately this refrain unexpectedly repeats throughout the show), night sweats, memory loss, weight gain, depression, decreased sex drive, and general confusion.

The choreography is not technically sophisticated, nor are the actresses, but their voices are capable and consistent throughout. The showstopping tunes include "The Husband Sleeps Tonight," which decries the lack of lust after age 50: "In the guest room or on the sofa, the husband sleeps tonight." The four actresses accompany the "wimoweh" refrain ("She's a witch, oh she's a witch, and she's a bitch, oh she's a bitch") by hitting wooden spoons against a cutting board and silverware against a metal grater. The women also display an audacious playfulness, which is a prerequisite for these cabaret-style numbers. Even with lots of finger-wagging and pointing à la the Supremes, the show would not be complete without one performer hiking up her foot onto the seat of a chagrined male audience member.

Shelley Browne's gospel-trained voice adds some soul to the musical numbers, and her rendition of Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do with It?" -- shaggy wig and all -- brings down the house. Her heavy-set Tina struts and croons, praising the virtues of battery-operated gratification: "It's not just the thrill of boy meeting girl when you're alone in the sack..../What's love but a second hand motion?" Rogers, as the conservative housewife from Iowa and recent sex-tool convert, sings homage to "Good Vibrations" while caressing an unusually fleshy-looking microphone. Incidentally the show takes a turn for the positive here, shifting from the symptoms of menopause to its possible remedies: the use of vibrators, the acceptance of wrinkles, and of course the declaration in the big finale tune, "I've Got a New Attitude."

This play was definitely created for a specific audience. If someone wanders in off the street expecting serious theater, she or he will be let down. Even for spectators who find the subject matter interesting and the lyrics funny, the show runs a little long, but it's also long on laughs. I have rarely seen an audience (men and women alike) laugh so wholeheartedly, maybe because the world outside the theater seems to display so little respect for the images represented on-stage. West Palm Beach's café-lined Clematis Street looks like an impromptu catwalk for females from ages 13 to 50 trying to be 20. Gaggles of knock-kneed preadolescents pass by, swaggering and tottering on transparent platform shoes. Bejeweled women who will never again see 40 squeeze into skintight Tommy Jeans and I Dream of Jeannie tops. A "young filly" of at least 55 wears a transparent "dress" that resembles baby-doll pajamas and a wide-brimmed white cowboy hat. Add to that your standard fare of cosmetically engineered, puffy-lipped, torpedo-breasted thirtysomethings and you get a Saturday night just about anywhere in the United States, where silicone, credit cards, and MTV videos unite. But Lil' Kim and Madonna -- yes, even Pamela Anderson -- will someday go through "the change."

No wonder four full-figured gals singing their hearts out about menopause inside the packed theater get such applause. They deliver the chorus of "The Husband Sleeps Tonight" with the vigor of a punch line, and the audience bursts into laughter. But outside the theater, with the pressures of the world on them, no one sleeps too easily or laughs too loudly -- it causes wrinkles.

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Mia Leonin

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