CHAPTER ONE 

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.

Trixie 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.”

“An Off-Broadway 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.”

Unfortunately, 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.

Let’s hope 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 …

My anxiety 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 particularly painful.

Beside me, Shanelle winces.  “Those lyrics are just plain wrong.”

“We gave 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.

“At least Lisette came up with a good story,” I murmur.

Shanelle rolls 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.)

Trixie leans 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.

“The show’s almost over,” Trixie murmurs.  “Maybe Lisette really will stay away tonight.”

“Knock me over with a feather,” Shanelle says.

Me, too.  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.

Sadly, 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.

Another 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.

Ouch.

I’m distracted from these morbid musings by the tepid applause that greets the final note of the sad-sack song.

“At least nobody booed,” Trixie whispers.

Which people did during the previews on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

I’m shifting 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.

Shanelle looks as astonished as I feel.  “Dang if I’ve ever heard this before.”

“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 this?”

“Maybe in the middle of the night,” Shanelle says.  “That’s the only time we’re not here.”

“Whenever they did it”—Trixie giggles—“it’s funny!”

The audience 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.

But the theatrical glory proves fleeting.

“Stop everything!” somebody yells from the back of the theater.  “Nobody say another word!”

It’s a female voice.  Loud.  Insistent.  Pissed off.

As Trixie 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.

I already know.  I knew the second I heard the first Stop!  It can only be …

Lisette 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.

Amateur psychologist that I am, it makes me think she’s hiding something.  That, or she’s the height of Manhattan pretension.

She plants 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!”

That elicits 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.

The commotion 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.”

Numerous 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?”

More boos break out.  It’s clear the audience has already taken sides.

“I knew I was right!” Lisette hollers at Oliver over the increasingly raucous audience.  “You did rewrite the dialogue!”

“So that’s 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 wouldn’t notice?”

Oliver throws 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—”

“It’s already good!”

Clearly Oliver doesn’t know how to respond to that cockamamie assertion.

“Besides,” Lisette roars, “you’ve got no business trying to tell me what works in this town!”

Shanelle pokes me in the arm.  “That’s crazy.  Dream Angel is that girl’s first production.”

“Well, at 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 her. 

Did this 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.

“This is getting uglier by the second,” I murmur to Shanelle.  “What’s Oliver going to do if Lisette keeps this up?”

We’ve all 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.

“Come on, 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.

Trixie sidles 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.”

We’re doing just that when two boisterous gray-haired couples pass by jabbering about their latest trip to Stratford-upon-Avon.

“Isn’t that where Shakespeare was born?” Shanelle wants to know.

I’m nodding 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.

“I’m already 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!”

I’ve never 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 close.

“Here’s what you have to do,” Trixie says to the man.

He glowers at her.  “Nobody tells me what to do.”

That draws jeers from the multitude.

“Please!” 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 in.

“Fuhgeddaboudit!” the man yowls, and disappears into Manhattan’s chilly night along with his three compatriots.

“Don’t feel 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 godforsaken theater.

“What now?”  Trixie’s face is ashen.  “That’s the last thing we needed.  That man pretty much spat on the biggest Broadway superstition ever.”

“You ask me, that spinning and spitting routine is nutty,” Shanelle opines.

“Superstitions 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.”

“What are people supposed to call it then?” Shanelle asks.

I’m starting 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.

“It’s not 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.

The tabloids 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?

No, 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.

Fortunately, 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.”

Truer words 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.

Singing all 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” musical.

“Oh my Lord!”—Trixie’s fingers clutch—“there she is again!”

“Stop 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 nobody’s business.



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