Ladies' Night

If you're in the right demographic, Menopause is a scream.

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If you're a woman of middle age or older, you're going to love Jeanie Linders' Menopause: The Musical.

I say this not as a critic but as a spectator, as a spectator who watched a theaterful of elderly women go wild for this show a year ago in Sarasota, and saw another full house of somewhat younger ladies do the same the other night in Tampa. I say this because I know that since it first appeared five years ago, more than six million women have seen the show worldwide, and because a woman I talked to at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center told me that this was her fourth time. I say this because the mostly female audience at TBPAC roared with every joke, cheered when the cast members danced, and finally gave the ensemble a long standing-ovation. Seldom in my career as a critic have I seen such an appreciative audience. And it was the same in Sarasota. And it's been the same — according to a press release — in the Philippines, Italy, Australia and South Korea.

What is this juggernaut, this steamroller, this monster crowd-pleaser? How does it manage to provoke such untrammeled delight? It's an evening of parodies: of songs from the '60s and '70s altered to comment on the no-longer-silent passage. For example: Everyone remembers the hit song "My Guy." Well, as Menopause would have it, "Nothin' I can do/ Cause it sticks like glue/ To my thighs/ I tell you from the heart/ They're never far apart/ They're my thighs."

Or remember "Heat Wave"? Now it goes: "I'm having a hot flash/ A tropical hot flash/ My personal summer/ Is really a bummer." These women have heard it through the grapevine: "You'll no longer see 39." Or "It's a sign of the times/ When your roots are gray/ And your memory's shorter." Disco re-emerges to tell us about sleeplessness: "Whether you're a sister or whether you're a mother/ You're staying awake/ Staying awake." And four Aretha Franklins sing about "Change, change, change/Change of life."

Men don't know anything about this, said the woman in orange sitting at my table. And it's true that I, one of the few men in the audience, didn't find anything to shout about in the 90 minutes of Menopause. Sure, it's clever. But mostly it feels like an unexceptional cabaret with a minimum of dialogue and a rather limited range of subject matter.

The four singer/actresses — Nadeen Holloway, P.J. Jendinson, Pammie O'Bannon and Sandy DeWoody — have strong if forgettable voices, and the set, basically an elegant upscale department store wall, is hardly very special. As cabarets go, this one isn't very inventive.

So why did the women in the audience go wild? I think that's clear enough: they're grateful to see "the change" finally celebrated aloud. Menopause is a show about night sweats, hot flashes, insomnia, incontinence, binge eating, weight gain, husbands who avoid sex, vibrators. Menopause tells women that their experience isn't a guilty secret anymore, that it's shared, universal.

When a character tries vainly to stretch some lingerie to fit her ample figure, the audience cheers with recognition: yes, that's what it's like. When the character called Soap Star croons to her plastic surgeon, "Please make me over/ Now that my chin's/ Lost in my neckline," the audience applauds, validated, vindicated: So I'm not the only one who feels that way.

This is a musical about solidarity — the solidarity of aging baby boomers who first heard these songs 30 years ago or more, and now face the fact that "If you want to know/ Where the fat grams go/ It's on my hips." This is a show about where have all the aging hippies gone. About women who once smoked dope in their college dorms, and whose drugs of choice now are Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil.

There's a wisp of a plot. Four females — Power Woman (Holloway), Soap Star (Jenkinson), Earth Mother (O'Bannon) and Iowa Housewife (DeWoody) — meet at a Bloomingdales sale. A fight over half-price merchandise turns into commiseration about the symptoms of the change — at which point individual identities more or less dissolve in favor of group singing. There are a few spoken lines: When Soap Star complains about incontinence in bed, she adds, "I remember throwing a towel over a different kind of wet spot." The audience goes crazy.

There's a little stage action too: When Earth Mother tries to read a menu at the Bloomies restaurant, she has to hold it at arm's length and still can't focus. The audience roars. There are even a few scenes that a hopelessly backward male human can appreciate — like when an ode to vibrators turns into a Tina Turner impersonator singing "What's Love Got To Do With It?"

And oh yes, there's just enough dancing to remind us that the moves of the '60s don't look the same 50 pounds later. Still, the women in the audience applauded every bump and grind; in appreciation, it would seem, of this chubby chorus line's chutzpah.

So now I'm ignoring everything I know about being a critic and letting the audience do my job. If you're a woman 40 or older, go, go at once, and bring your friends. If you're a woman under 40, well, the question is, how long do you want to hold on to your blissful ignorance? If you're a man of any age, don't waste your ticket money. You won't understand. Stay home and watch the Rays play. Have a beer. Daydream about Heidi Klum.

Menopause has the power to thrill — if you're in the right demographic. Before the right audience, this thing electrifies, inspires, reaches deep into the psyche and returns with pure delight. Buy a ticket for your mother and your sister and your twin cousins. Tell them: Never again will the symptoms of the change leave you feeling isolated. You're not alone, you're part of the main. The bell tolls generally, for women everywhere. And there's strength in numbers. Come, celebrate with your kind.

Theater's supposed to touch people, right?

Well, Menopause does just that. And if the women that I sat with are any indication, it brings its audience — its target audience — something like pure pleasure.

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