At the opening of Mark Schwartz's Divorce Party: The Musical, a frumpy housefrau named Linda (Janna Cardia) sits amidst small rings of her own fat, in one of the few uncluttered spaces on her living room floor, and howls her despair into a telephone over her broken marriage, between gulps of Chubby Hubby ice cream.
"It's not you," we hear her ex-spouse, Steven, gently intone a few moments later, during a flashback. "It's me."
It sure is. Steven is gay, a predilection he neglected to tell his wife about through the rearing of their two children. Now that Linda is in her mid-30s, Steven has run off to be with some fella, leaving her world upended.
This jukebox musical — a sort of fun, sometimes embarrassing and frequently excruciating spectacle at the El Portal Theatre through April 14 — gives new lyrics (by Jay Falzone) to oldie hits. "Gay, oh: He's so gay-oh, your husband's so gay," set to "Day-O" or an exegesis on pubic-hair styles, set to the title song of the musical Hair.
This show has done well at the box office, in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and in Ontario, Canada, telling the story of Linda's emergence from despondency to self-respect — self-love, even — with a little help from her friends, who throw Linda a party that features a masseur, a pizza delivery boy, a yoga instructor, a male stripper and a makeover artist (all played by the fine Scott Ahearn), in order to help Linda cope with life sans Steven.
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Based on Dr. Amy Botwinick's book, Congratulations on Your Divorce: The Road to Finding Your Happily Ever After, this is a saucy, phallus-obsessed satire of all things attached to women's single life today, from pubic-hair chic to sex toys to the reframing of divorce from something associated with failure and shame to something associated with freedom and opportunity. Because our 50 percent divorce rate serves up way more failure than any society wishes to embrace, change the meaning of the D-word to something uplifting, as this musical does, and you're doing your part to end human misery — that's the underlying philosophy here. Divorce Party: The Musical aims to be both a lampoon of social stereotypes and a confessional about getting through. Somehow, it accomplishes this by blending Sex and the City with the sensibilities of Oprah and Dr. Phil.
The attendant stereotypes of Linda's friends — the sassy, bossy black woman (Soara-Joyce Ross) who's busting her own hubby's balls, the "perfect" therapist (Mary Jane Waddell) who's struggling with her cougar inclinations and the surgically preserved lesbian (Samara Dunn) — are so broad, their aim is to encompass all womanhood. The characters' ostensible purpose is to promote feeling good, or at least feeling better. Each one of them — ably performed by the spirited actors in director-choreographer Jay Falzone's clean, farcical style — contains a smidgen of inner turmoil that's supposed to render her vulnerable. The result is formulaic truisms struggling to pass for something true.
The Toronto Star critic described it as "the musical theater equivalent of being water-boarded," and there's some truth to that. The final 30 minutes is a gratuitous sequence of vignettes, including Ahearn performing a Chippendales-style striptease, not for Linda but for the now-rowdy audience. The woman next to me screamed enthusiastically while her male date eked out a strained smile. Meanwhile, four Arabic women, all wearing hijabs, giggled together before one of them — at about the time Ahearn was down to his jock strap — seemed to lose interest and switched focus to her Facebook page on a smartphone. The whole experience was quite odd. —Steven Leigh Morris
DIVORCE PARTY: THE MUSICAL | Conceived by Mark Schwartz and Amy Botwinick, book by Schwartz, Botwinick and Jay Falzone, lyrics by Falzone | El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. | Through April 14 | (866) 811-4111 | elportaltheatre.com