In Better Than This, writer / director Mary Littlejohn has drawn on her encyclopedic musical-theatre knowledge to take aim at how women's representation on the Broadway stage has progressed from the sometimes subtle but often blatant sexism and cliche of the past, to the vastly improved yet still-evolving landscape of the 21st century. And though its underlying themes are serious, it's a breezily-paced and extremely funny show. The perceptive analysis comes with barbed humour and top-notch vocalizing.
The intimate space of the Havana helps give the feeling of a conversation among friends, as the four leads talk and sing us through the history of women's representation in musicals, starting with a 1920's-era number from Oh, Kay! that reminds us just how retrograde things once were.
They highlight the embedded sexism or limited choices in some of the most beloved classics - like the fatalistic acceptance of a bad man as seen in Carousel's "What's the Use of Wonderin'". Then there's tunes that need no re-analysis to make one cringe a little, like "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" (from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).
But as the decades roll on and we move into the 80's, 90's and beyond, things get more promising. Sondheim, of course, brings complex female characters along with his intricate lyrics and melodies.
The show's title comes from Sweet Charity's "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This", one of the mid-century shows that passes the infamous "Bechdel test" (in which named female characters discuss or sing about something other than a male character). You'll be surprised at not only how many 80's musicals fail that test, but also that more than a few of the earlier ones pass it with flying colours.
The quartet of strong performers - Brianna Clark, Kyrst Hogan, Dionne Phillips and Cathy Wilmot - keep the show bubbling along. From note-perfect vocals to quick emotional changes, plus the ability to get a laugh with the smallest gesture, these gals have it all. I have to give special mention though, to Cathy Wilmot – her infectious energy and rambunctious personality permeate her every moment on stage.
Musical director Adam Darts ensures the pacing never flags and the tunes flow effortlessly. I'd never heard the Streisand classic "Don't Rain on My Parade" done in three-part harmony - it was a revelation. And Sarah Jaysmith's incredible arrangement combining three complex numbers into one medley intertwines melody lines so elaborately, it could only be pulled off with top-notch singers like these.
Near the end we are treated to an endearing and hilarious number that exemplifies the goal of passing the "Bechdel test" - from Fun Home, a show about the early years of the woman for whom that test is named. After the sometimes-questionable gender politics revealed in so many other tunes and shows, it's a satisfying blast of empowerment.
In "Better Than This", you get to enjoy a cross-section of some of the most beloved tunes to come out of Broadway... while also perhaps having some cozy assumptions about your favourite shows challenged. It's highly recommended.