CURVY WIDOW: The Lioness in Winter

Here’s a twist to that old question: “Is there life after death?”

In the new musical CURVY WIDOW, the issue isn’t reincarnation, but, in a sense, resurrection.

What happens to a wife when her husband suddenly and unexpectedly dies? At the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, we witness the fate of Barbara “Bobby” Goldman, who on October 25th, 1998 celebrated her 23rd anniversary with James Goldman — three days before he died.

Does his name ring a theatrical bell? James Goldman wrote both the play and Oscar-winning screenplay for THE LION IN WINTER as well as the book to FOLLIES, one of the most cherished musicals in Broadway history.

What we see in CURVY WIDOW is that Bobby Goldman went through many follies while becoming The Lioness in Winter – meaning a sexually active merry widow. She’s amazingly frank in this musical for which she wrote the autobiographical book.

At first, Ms. Goldman naturally grieves. Nancy  Opel’s face fully captures the anguish as Booby makes the standard-issue observations you’d expect: Jim was with her “for half my life,” so she now feels lost, “lives like a bat in a cave” and worries about “starting again at my age.” And yet, Opel never comes across as whiny or needy and plays these moments with great dignity

Those feelings aren’t at the center of her universe for long, for Ms. Goldman won’t allow herself to become a pathetic also-ran who solely lived in her husband’s shadow. She decides, just as Bette Midler’s current character does after her husband’s death, to rejoin the human race – only Bobby does it quicker than Dolly Levi does.

You might assume you’ve already figured out the plot: Bobby will go on more bad dates than PERFECT CRIME has empty seats; then —  hallelujah! — she finds True Love.

Ms. Goldman may have gleaned that that’s what we’d expect and has smartly avoided that template. Or is it that she’s just related the story in the way it happened to her? As she writes in her 16-word program bio – and I quote it in its entirety — “Since my slutdom is on stage, I’m not really sure I have anything else to add.”

Thus, not even a third into this 90-minute intermissionless romp, Bobby moves on to salvage the next decade or three that she might have. The goal is “to get me back on my back again” which can occur, she feels, because “for the first time in my life I can be anonymous!” Opel proclaims these lines with unbridled joy.

In place of that too-familiar plot, we have new issues. To estrogen or not to estrogen? Should she pick up a check? What happens she you answers an ad, immediately regrets it and can’t get it back? Then there’s her inevitable liaison with the married man which proves that when you deal with a husband who cheats, you wind up cheating yourself.

There’s an age-old issue ,too, one that every unmarried must face: Bobby become violently ill one night and has no one to help. Only the hardest-hearted theatergoer won’t feel for her.

Just as you resign yourself of an evening of seeing simple white curtains against the stage’s back wall, you’ll find that set designer Rob Bissinger has a handsome surprise in store. The curtains are pulled back to display where this “Fairfield County princess’” will be enjoying city life “with the young and the hip.”

“Moving on” does often mean one step backward for every two steps forward. After Bobby has said goodbye to James, she realizes that if she takes up with someone else, she’ll in essence be forced to say goodbye one more time. It’s one of the show’s most poignant passages.

And who are these “someone elses?” The dating deluge on leads to some commonplace mismatches. We hear the expected remarks from men (“You’re far too smart.”) which make the excitement of dating last as long as an ice cube on a hibachi.

Alas, what Goldman cannot write at all are good blackout lines that can end each scene with a mirthquake of laughter. As each segment ended, the audience could only muster a few barely audible chuckles or — worse — silent smiles. Where’s that Long Island dentist who’s become known around Broadway as the best gag-writer since Neil Simon? Ms. Goldman should pay him a visit even if her teeth are in tip-top shape.

Worse, Drew Brody’s score is not at all impressive and is no more than affable, indistinctive pop. His lyrics are routine, too: Bobby sings about “the years” she and James had, so you know the word “tears” will soon be employed to get in that rhyme.

Totally successful, however, is Nancy Opel. Throughout her successful career, she’s often played eccentrics, so seeing her in a serio-comic “normal” role is a distinct pleasure.

It’s a demanding part, for Opel rarely and barely leaves the stage. Thus, the show squarely rests on her shoulders, guts and head of unapologetic gray hair. Opel has no problem supporting it. In fact, Opel rather resembles Dorothy Loudon – ANNIE’S original Miss Hannigan — and she is no less commensurate in spirit and talent.

The other six cast members are basically limited to cameos – MANY cameos, more than you’ll find in an upscale jewelry store. Each performer rushes on stage, often remains there for less than a minute, then rushes off to prepare for the next character. All function as mere tools in a box, but they’re the right tools and they never throw a monkey wrench into Opel’s show. That reflects well on director Peter Flynn, who moves matters along at an amiable pace.

Cynics might say of CURVY WIDOW, “Yeah, but starting over fresh is easier when you’re flush, isn’t it?” While it’s not for us to say if Ms. Goldman is wealthy from those LION IN WINTER and FOLLIES royalties, she does lets us know that she has her own income from a business not associated with women. It’s just another way that Bobby Goldman is a 21st century woman – one so forward-thinking that she might be right at home in the 22nd century if she could stay around to see it.