Don't Go Changin'

Entertaining, yes, but Menopause doesn't go far enough in erasing taboos

Menopause. "The very word is a room-emptier," as editor Tina Brown once put it. Until recently, a woman's journey toward post-fertility was a subject as inappropriate for the dinner table as diarrhea or public execution. In her icebreaking 1992 book The Silent Passage, Gail Sheehy dubbed menopause "the last taboo," while in a 1997 article for the New York Times headlined "As Conversation Stopper, It Has Few Equals," Anna Quindlen discussed the widespread reluctance among women to talk about the natural process that affects every female over the age of 40. "I should know as much about menopause, from talking and listening, as I do about pregnancy," wrote Quindlen. "But I don't."

In a (hot) flash, things have changed. Having spent the 1960s heralding an era of unprecedented sexual, social, and economic freedoms for the female sex, baby boomers are taking the "pause" out of "menopause." A quick search on Amazon.com reveals dozens of books on the subject, from Healthy Transitions to Menopause for Dummies. Menopause-related Web sites, support organizations, and discussion groups abound. And if all this weren't enough, "the change" has become the subject of a musical-theater franchise phenomenon that's fanning out across the country faster than middle-age spread.

Menopause the Musical, a "hilarious celebration of women and The Change" (as it's described in publicity materials), began life in a tiny Florida theater in 2001. Clones of the original production can now be seen in 14 U.S. cities such as Boston, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, as well as internationally, in Seoul and Sydney. Like Eve Ensler's hit The Vagina Monologues, which acted as the catalyst for a global anti-violence movement, Menopause has spawned its own nonprofit organization, the Women for Women Foundation, a body aimed at empowering women of a certain age. Judging by the packed theater (I attended a midweek matinee) and the cries of mirth from the stalls, the show seemed to make a positive impression on its mostly middle-aged female audience. The real question is: How effective is Menopauseat spreading the m-word? Is it just a bit of fun, a girls' night out, or is the show truly helping to revolutionize the way people think about the aging process?

The soap star, the housewife, the hippie, 
and the businesswoman (pictured: a 
Washington, D.C., cast).
Mike Kelly
The soap star, the housewife, the hippie, and the businesswoman (pictured: a Washington, D.C., cast).

The popularity of the play stems from its ability to present openly what many members of its target audience would still consider to be a racy subject, while at the same time fostering a sense of lively community. Menopause accomplishes this, in part, by drawing on easily identifiable scenarios and types. Set entirely in Bloomingdale's department store in New York, the musical unites four contrasting female characters -- an Iowa housewife, a business executive, a TV soap star, and a hippie Earth Mother -- through the forces of cut-price lingerie and hormone replacement therapy. The ladies potter from floor to floor, sharing their worst menopausal hang-ups as they try on clothes, rifle through sales racks, and run in and out of the store's many strategically placed powder rooms. It's like watching one giant Tupperware party, only the plastic under discussion is surgical rather than culinary.

The four performers in the San Francisco production are endowed with an appealing feel for caricature. The portrayals may be one-dimensional -- and in many ways inane -- but they're infectious embodiments nonetheless. Amy Washburn and Deborah Black create flamboyantly silly portraits of, respectively, the housewife and the hippie. In sensible heels, pearls, and top-to-toe beige, Washburn balances bland respectability with sweet naughtiness. Black's Earth Mother is quite the opposite, her easygoing looseness giving way to exasperation when she sings of the horrors of trying to get in shape. Anise Ritchie's and Yvette McGregor's characters are less cartoonlike, yet every bit as compelling. As the pantsuit-wearing businesswoman, Ritchie oozes confidence, but it fails her every time she has a hot flash. Meanwhile, McGregor's sexpot TV star is convinced that she'll lose her job to some bright young thing.

The characterizations might forge a bond with the audience, but it's the music that creates the strongest sense of sisterhood. Writer/producer Jeanie Linders gives 25 chart-topping songs from the '60s and '70s a facelift, making the words resonate for her target demographic. Thus "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight" becomes "In the guestroom, or on the sofa, my husband sleeps at night." Likewise, "I wish they all could be California girls" finds new meaning when transformed into "I wish we all could be sane and normal girls." Much of the show's merriment comes from these unexpected lyrical twists, and the familiarity of the melodies draws people together.

For all that, Menopause is certainly not everyone's cup of herbal tea. For one thing, it's unabashedly tacky. A scene in which Ritchie does a Tina Turner impression in a black leather miniskirt, a corset, and a fright wig -- though spot-on -- goes overboard on cheesiness. And an ode to the delights of masturbation, sung into a pink microphone to a doctored version of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," makes one think that all that's missing from this (very) belated bachelorette party is a male stripper.

Although Menopause is entertaining and no doubt makes its audiences feel more comfortable about themselves and the aging process, it doesn't go far enough. For one thing, the word "menopause" is hardly ever mentioned. Instead, the process is euphemistically referred to as "the change," which just seems to reinforce the taboo. And its obsession with shopping, sex, and cellulite makes the show feel a lot like a geriatric issue of Cosmo. Rather than empowering women, the musical ends up underscoring many trite clichés.

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