I know a lot
of superstitious beauty queens. I myself have never been
one of them. But I have the funniest feeling that may
change here in New York City.
Barnett—the reigning Ms. Congeniality and one of my best
friends ever—unleashes a delighted giggle. “I still can’t
believe we’re watching a Broadway show from the wings! I
feel like such an insider.”
show,” Shanelle corrects. Ms. Walker, otherwise known as
Ms. Mississippi and as dear to my heart as Trixie, can be a
stickler for details. “And since we’re consultants for this
fiasco, we are insiders.”
Shanelle’s deployment of the “f” word is only too apt.
Dream Angel: The Musical is the most ramshackle piece of
musical theater this beauty queen has ever laid eyes on.
And that includes the grade-school productions my husband
Jason and I sat through when our Rachel was a wee minx.
How long ago
those days seem now. And how uncomplicated. All I had to
worry about back then was whether to put an apple or an
orange in Rach’s lunch box along with her PB&J and cookie.
Now my beautiful girl is four months from graduating high
school and departing for foreign parts unknown; Jason is
living five hundred miles from our Cleveland home working
his dream job on a NASCAR pit crew; and yours truly Happy
Pennington is trying to be a great Ms. America, a great
full-time personal assistant, a great mom, a great wife, a
great daughter, a great friend, and—every so often—a great
solver of seemingly unsolvable murders.
there’s no need for that anytime soon. I’m frazzled
enough. And that’s before we even get into the state of my
bewildered heart …
ratchets higher still when I hear the opening notes of the
sixth song in the second act. I wouldn’t describe any of
the songs in Dream Angel as good, but this one I find
Shanelle winces. “Those lyrics are just plain wrong.”
Lisette so many ideas for how to rewrite them!” Trixie
wails. “Why doesn’t she ever listen to us?”
Shanelle has a
ready answer. “Because that woman always knows better than
everybody else. Makes no never mind what the topic is.”
This topic, as
it happens, is something Trixie, Shanelle and I know a thing
or two about: beauty queens. The heroine in Dream Angel
goes to hell and back—horrible parents, foster homes, even a
stint in prison—but despite all that manages to achieve what
she desires above all else: a tiara and a title.
Lisette came up with a good story,” I murmur.
her brown eyes. “Too bad she has zero clue how to tell it.”
Now that this
consulting gig has made me a Broadway aficionado, I know how
to describe Lisette Longley’s role in this production.
She’s the lyricist and the book writer all rolled into one,
meaning she wrote the sung and the unsung words, as they
say. A very nice man named Maximilian Pepper composed the
music, no doubt cringing every time he heard Lisette’s
lyrics. (Note to self: orange and porridge do not rhyme.)
in close, her chin-length copper-colored hair swinging.
She’s wearing a fit-and-flare dress in a gray
menswear-inspired plaid, perfect for January. Shanelle is
adorable in a colorblock pencil skirt in black, red and
pink, paired with a black top. Her straightened Afro is
held off her face by a very on-trend silver beaded
headband. And my brunette self is decked out in my favorite
sheath dress, in cobalt blue, with black tights and—you’ll
never guess—matching stilettos.
This is New
York City, after all. We must be styling. Not that we
three are the type ever to let our fashion standards slip.
almost over,” Trixie murmurs. “Maybe Lisette really will
stay away tonight.”
over with a feather,” Shanelle says.
Lisette keeps throwing such giant hissy fits, even in the
middle of performances, that the director banned her from
tonight’s preview. But as you no doubt already gather, dear
reader, Lisette doesn’t take direction.
Oh, and just
to keep you up on the lingo, the previews are the full
performances, complete with costume, that precede opening
night. They’re to help the cast and crew work out the last
kinks, but based on how they go the director may make big
changes, like if the audience doesn’t laugh when they’re
supposed to, does laugh when they’re not, or at any point
throws tomatoes at the performers.
Dream Angel is in screaming need of big changes. But no
way will Lisette allow that to happen.
It makes me
wonder why Shanelle, Trixie and I were brought in. Why seek
advice if you’re never going to take it? Then again, maybe
Lisette was only pretending to be open to suggestions to get
everybody off her back.
thing. You’ll never guess who recommended us as consultants
for this production. Remember Kimberly? As in the
photographer who did the shoots for Jason’s Men of NASCAR
Pit Crews calendar, for which he landed on the cover?
And which had to be reprinted over the holidays because it
sold so many copies?
Well, it so
happens Kimberly developed her love for photography because
of her Uncle Jerry, who’s a big-time Broadway photographer.
He often hires her to assist him, as he did here for
Dream Angel. So at this very moment, Kimberly’s petite,
perky, blond 25-year-old self is bopping around the theater
somewhere, no doubt being extremely helpful.
Do I sound
snarky? I don’t mean to. I am truly grateful to Kimberly
for making it possible for my besties and me to spend a week
in the Big Apple on the Ms. America dime. I just wish my
husband’s new BFF didn’t look fresh off the cheerleading
squad. It doesn’t help that when I hit my birthday in four
days, she’ll be precisely ten years younger than me.
from these morbid musings by the tepid applause that greets
the final note of the sad-sack song.
nobody booed,” Trixie whispers.
did during the previews on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
my weight from one four-inch heel to the other when I
freeze, disbelieving. I listen for a while then clutch
Shanelle’s arm. “Am I dreaming or is this an entirely new
scene?” For tonight’s preview, there’s been small rewriting
throughout, but nothing on this massive a scale.
as astonished as I feel. “Dang if I’ve ever heard
“We did hear
those rumors that Oliver”—that’s the director—“was working
up big changes on the sly.” While Lisette was home sick
with food poisoning. “But when did they manage to rehearse
“Maybe in the
middle of the night,” Shanelle says. “That’s the only time
we’re not here.”
did it”—Trixie giggles—“it’s funny!”
thinks so, too. I hear chortling and even a guffaw. And
given that Dream Angel is meant to be both
heartwarming and funny—think Wicked—the actors must
be thrilled finally to be getting a laugh or two.
theatrical glory proves fleeting.
everything!” somebody yells from the back of the theater.
“Nobody say another word!”
It’s a female
voice. Loud. Insistent. Pissed off.
gasps and the actors stumble over their lines, Shanelle and
I hustle forward to peek around the narrow stage drapes that
hide the wings. People in the front rows are swiveling
around to see what’s going on.
know. I knew the second I heard the first Stop! It
can only be …
Longley heaves into view with her last few stomps up the
center aisle. She’s in her late twenties, skinny with long
blond hair, and dressed in her typical Boho-chic outfit of
flowing black skirt, matching tunic with white embroidery,
and lace-up ankle boots with chunky heels. Her fringed
satchel dangles from her shoulder and even though she’s
inside a dark theater she’s wearing the amber-colored
sunglasses I’ve never seen leave her face.
psychologist that I am, it makes me think she’s hiding
something. That, or she’s the height of Manhattan
herself below what I now know is called the apron of the
stage and sets her hands on her hips. Even deep in the
wings, I can feel her fury. “You’re going to make me say it
again?” she bellows at the actors. “Shut up already!”
boos from the crowd. Now, before we get any further, let me
assure you that even though this is a preview, it’s meant to
be like a real performance. Meaning everyone paid good
money for their tickets. Meaning they’ll accept a few
snafus, but they expect a normal production, which typically
does not include tirades by members of the crew.
Then I realize
that some people might mistake Lisette for a wacko who
walked in off 45th Street. She’s doing a good
imitation of one.
draws the director, Oliver Tripp Jr., onto the stage. With
his thinning hair, skeletal build and awkward gait, and
wearing his trademark black cords and red sneakers, the man
screams nebbish. If you were meeting him for the first
time, you’d never guess he’s a force in the theater world.
Slightly hunched over, even though he’s only in his forties,
he creeps downstage toward Lisette, twisting his hands and
looking as timid as a toddler on the first day of
preschool. He halts at the footlights. “Lisette,” he
squeaks, his voice even higher than usual, “maybe you and I
should go backstage to talk.”
people in the audience recognize him and start clapping.
That seems to enrage Lisette even further. “No way!” she
shouts up at him. “I can say what I need to say right
here! So how about I talk and you listen?”
break out. It’s clear the audience has already taken sides.
I was right!” Lisette hollers at Oliver over the
increasingly raucous audience. “You did rewrite the
why it was good!” somebody yells.
“Put a sock in
it!” Lisette twists around to shriek. Then she pivots again
to face Oliver. “Are you such an idiot you thought I
out his arms as if to bring the audience into the
discussion. “All any of us want is for Dream Angel
to be as good as possible—”
doesn’t know how to respond to that cockamamie assertion.
Lisette roars, “you’ve got no business trying to tell me
what works in this town!”
me in the arm. “That’s crazy. Dream Angel is that
girl’s first production.”
least we’re getting some drama tonight. Too bad it’s not
part of the show.” And even though I’m amazed—and not in a
good way—by Lisette’s diatribe, I also find myself pitying
woman’s parents never teach her that you catch more flies
with honey than with vinegar? We beauty queens know that
you get much further in life if you cooperate with those
around you. Approach everyone and everything with a
positive attitude! That’s what we always say. But it sure
seems Lisette never learned that lesson.
getting uglier by the second,” I murmur to Shanelle.
“What’s Oliver going to do if Lisette keeps this up?”
heard Oliver scream at Lisette behind closed doors, but he
never does that with anybody watching. Fortunately for him,
somebody in the crowd starts a chant—Go backstage! Go
backstage!—that the entire audience gets into.
Lisette,” Oliver implores again, this time beckoning her to
stage right. “Come backstage and we’ll talk.”
This time she
accedes. Oliver calls for a five-minute break. Once
Lisette disappears, the audience lets out a cheer the likes
of which this production will never hear again. Scads of
people make a beeline for the exits while others whip out
their cell phones. I can only imagine the snarky tweeting
that will ensue.
next to Shanelle and me, her expression grim. “I guess it
was too much to hope that Lisette would stay away tonight.
Anyhoo, my new boots are killing me. Let’s walk around the
lobby to stretch our legs.”
just that when two boisterous gray-haired couples pass by
jabbering about their latest trip to Stratford-upon-Avon.
where Shakespeare was born?” Shanelle wants to know.
when one of the men does the unthinkable. “I’m done with
these cheesy musicals!” he bellows. “Get me some of the
Bard. King Lear, Macbeth—”
“Oh my Lord!”
Trixie yelps, “I can’t believe he said the M word!” She
races up to the man, grabs him by the arm, and insists he
follow her outside.
on my way outside,” he says. “What’s your problem?”
“You can’t say
the name of that play in a theater! Don’t you know that?
It’s horrible luck!”
“Lady, all the
luck in the world isn’t going to save this bomb. Now
let go of my arm.”
“No! You have
to eradicate the curse!”
seen Trixie more insistent. By this point she’s drawn a
crowd, thanks to the teeming hordes who are attempting to
exit the theater before Dream Angel shudders to a
you have to do,” Trixie says to the man.
He glowers at
her. “Nobody tells me what to do.”
jeers from the multitude.
Trixie cries, “it’s easy,” and she launches into quite the
sequence of moves, to the obvious enjoyment of everyone
watching. She spins three times; she spits; she swears; and
then she knocks on the theater door asking to be let back
“Fuhgeddaboudit!” the man yowls, and disappears into
Manhattan’s chilly night along with his three compatriots.
bad, lady,” another departing theatergoer tells Trixie.
“You put on the best show I saw all night.” Then he and his
gal pal flee as well.
I look after
them with envy. Fabulous New York City is pulsing all
around me, but all I get to see is the inside of this
Trixie’s face is ashen. “That’s the last thing we needed.
That man pretty much spat on the biggest Broadway
“You ask me,
that spinning and spitting routine is nutty,” Shanelle
exist for a reason,” Trixie insists. “If it’s really true
that the first actor who ever played, you know, the M word,
died after his performance, that play is cursed. Its name
should never be mentioned in a theater.”
people supposed to call it then?” Shanelle asks.
to answer “the Scottish play” when my voice catches in my
throat. I swear I stop breathing. Everything fades into
the background as I stare at a well-dressed man walking
across the theater lobby, a handsome man with dark hair and
olive-toned skin and a certain something in his profile—
“That man kind
of looks like Mario,” Trixie murmurs.
That’s the M
word I’m not supposed to say. Or even think. I’m
not having much success with that New Year’s resolution, I
can tell you.
Mario, though,” Shanelle points out.
I clear my
throat. “No, of course not. He has no reason to be in New
York.” Because Mario doesn’t follow me around anymore. Not
that he ever really followed me around, but you know
what I mean. All that’s stopped. There’s no more of that.
prove that he’s doing exactly what I told him to do. He’s
getting on with his life. I told him that’s what he had to
do the last time I saw him, in Minnesota a month ago. And
you can’t get mad at a man on that rare occasion when he
actually does what you tell him to do, now can you?
cannot. Not even when it feels like your heart is being
ripped out of your chest and stomped on by evil women
wearing extremely high stilettos. And especially when you
have no business being upset because you have your own
husband and he’s a pretty great guy.
my BFFs don’t bring up any of the tabloid news. They can
tell I’m flustered enough. Trixie rubs my arm. “We’d
better get back in there.”
I manage to
smile and even crack a lame joke. “We shouldn’t have any
trouble finding places to sit.”
were never spoken. We plant our butts in abandoned seats in
the third row right off the center aisle. Moments later the
orchestra launches into an abbreviated version of the
overture, presumably to get everybody back in the mood for
Dream Angel. That’s a tall order. I know what I’m
in the mood for: an adult beverage.
At long last
the musical wends its tortuous way to the closing scene,
when our heroine finally wins the pageant title she’s always
dreamed of. You’d think this would tug at my
heartstrings—after all, it parallels my own life story—but
the dialogue is so forced and the heroine’s final song so
sappy that the only emotion I can summon is a raging desire
for the curtains to fall.
the way, the heroine begins the tricky ascent up the steep,
glittering staircase atop which her gold and crimson throne
awaits. From my left side, Trixie lays a hand on my leg. I
know why. I’m sure that like me, she’s wondering if
tonight, like every other preview night, Lisette will appear
on stage at the tippy top of the staircase to scream about
how much she detests the music in this final scene of “her”
“Oh my Lord!”—Trixie’s
fingers clutch—“there she is again!”
everything!” Lisette hollers, raising her arms wide like a
mad preacher and stepping out in front of the throne.
That turns out
to be the last order Lisette Longley ever gives. All of a
sudden she lurches forward, her eyes amazed behind her
amber-colored eyeglasses, and does a header down the stage’s
sky-high staircase—boom, boom, boom, boom—tumbling
ass over applecart all the way down to the footlights,
thumping every tread en route, head and body flailing like