(from left) Jennifer Sue Johnson, Cayman Ilika and Billie Wildrick play life-long friends coping with change in "Vanities: A New Musical."
(from left) Jennifer Sue Johnson, Cayman Ilika and Billie Wildrick play life-long friends coping with change in "Vanities: A New Musical."

When it first opened off-Broadway in 1976, “Vanities” by Jack Heifner had fresh things to say about how feminism, self-actualization and the Pill changed women’s lives beginning in the 1960’s. Following three high school cheerleaders from small-town Texas in 1963 through sorority sisterhood in 1968, the dissolution of their friendship in 1974 Manhattan and their eventual reunion later in life, “Vanities” was also renowned for its innovative staging in which the three actresses sat at vanity tables, and changed their costumes and wigs onstage.

Heifner retains most of the original material from his play in his book for “Vanities, A New Musical”. The onstage costume changes still generate audience intimacy with the characters, and the play continues to provide three strong actresses with an opportunity to shine. There are also plenty of opportunities for nostalgia for audience members of a certain age: each scene opens with a humorous intoning of brand names that put us immediately in a specific time (Eileen Fisher with a groan for the onset of middle age.) But the sexually frank language and mores that may have shocked in the ‘70’s are the stuff of everyday banter today. Similarly the portrayal of the girls in the first two scenes, first as empty-headed high school queen bees and then as snooty sorority sisters, has become cliché over too many years of Heathers, Mean Girls and Gossip Girls. The later scenes display more psychological interest the women follow more divergent paths.

Still, “Vanities” provides an opportunity to watch three talented and energetic Seattle performers belt out David Kirsenbaum’s apropos lyrics as they gamely slip in and out of the decades and Catherine Hunt’s fun period costumes.  The trio of voices blends beautifully in many numbers and each actor has at least one solo number as well.  Cayman Ilika is Kathy, head cheerleader and control freak of the trio; her gorgeous voice soars in the plaintive “Cute Boys with Short Haircuts”. Billie Wildrick as the sexually liberated Mary displays just the right amount of wiggle and attitude as she spreads her wings to “Fly Into the Future”.  Jennifer Sue Johnson shines as she brings her comedic talents to the part of Joanne, the girl who went to college for her MRS degree only to discover that marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She struts her way through the comic “The Same Old Music”.

Staged at ACT and directed by Fifth Avenue Executive Producer and Artistic Director David Armstrong, the Northwest premiere of “Vanities, A New Musical” is the product of a first-time collaboration between ACT and the Fifth Avenue Theatre. Audiences have an opportunity to experience a musical in the unusually intimate setting of ACT’s Falls Theater, but with all of the slick production values of a larger venue. Although most likely not designed for music, the Falls sound system holds its own for the most part although it crackles occasionally when the volume rises.

A five-piece orchestra plays Kirsenbaum’s smooth if not particularly memorable pop score reminiscent of Burt Bacharach. Scenic designer Matthew Smucker takes full advantage of the Falls Theater’s smoothly operating stage machinery with his quick change set that converts in the blink of an eye from high school gymnasium to psychedelic dorm room to Manhattan penthouse terrace to funeral parlor.

Most women under the age of 50 take for granted the benefits conferred by the feminist movement. In order to resonate with these women, “Vanities, A New Musical” must view the past through the filter of the present. After all, we’ve come a long way, baby.