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Hot flashes pay off in musical's long run

'Menopause' cast members play 'the change' for chuckles
by: COURTESY OF MENOPAUSE THE MUSICAL, Playing a spectrum of baby-boomer female stereotypes are Kittra Wynn Coomer (left) as the aging hippie, Joan Freed (seated) as a homemaker, Cherie Price as a TV star and Brenda Phillips (right) as a high-powered businesswoman.

In some of the stuffier corners of the theater world, 'Menopause the Musical' is to be dismissed, an entertainment trifle with the groan-worthy comedy built into the title.

Which would leave unexplained the phenomenal worldwide success of the show. It is running concurrently in several American cities as well as in places like Israel, South Africa and South Korea. And after nearly a year, it's close to wrapping up a record-setting stay in Portland.

People in and around it agree that the show's popularity goes beyond the breezy bounce of baby-boom song hits reconfigured to reflect the realities of middle age and its effect on women's bodies.

The show, they say, is nothing short of a cultural revolution.

'It's been to Australia, it's been to South Africa, it's been to Toronto,' says Meg Chamberlain, who moved to Portland last year to become stage manager for the musical. 'It's turned into more of a movement than a play.'

'Menopause' debuted in Orlando in 2001, the brainchild of an entertainment-industry professional named Jeanie Linders. In the 'change of life,' when women cease menstruating and are often bedeviled by everything from changes in body temperature to forgetfulness, Linders saw comic opportunity.

She also saw a chance for women to compare notes about what historically had been seen as a shameful, if poorly kept, secret.

'You think you're going nuts, then you walk in and you see four women on stage and everybody relates to them,' she says. 'It's four sisters going through the same thing.'

'Menopause is a taboo subject in our culture,' says Portland filmmaker Joanna Priestley, whose new animated film on the subject will screen here Thursday (see culture listing, Page B4). 'People have not talked about it very much. If you brought up the subject at a party, people would literally turn on their heel and walk away.

'Women are finding ways to talk about it and be creative with it.'

Show's a boon for local cast

Robyn Williams, general manager of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, says audiences have responded in an unprecedented way to 'Menopause.' When the run closes in March, the musical will have driven roughly 50,000 theatergoers into the building.

That has been a godsend for the PCPA, which lost its prime tenant when Portland Center Stage relocated to the new Gerding Theater at the Armory last fall.

'Our revenues are probably four times what we had from Center Stage,' Williams says. 'It's hard to commit our theater to one user; it's not what we do. We just couldn't turn away from the sheer economics.

'If we look at the gross ticket sales, we were selling $400,000 in tickets last year. We've sold $1.6 million with 'Menopause.' These monies are what allow us to turn around and subsidize other users of the venue.'

Williams says 'Menopause' has provided another benefit for the local theater scene, keeping a Portland cast and crew in steady paychecks for the better part of a year.

'Because they cast it locally, you've got local people earning a living,' she says.

Craig Bidondo, leader of the snappy three-piece band that backs the Portland show, says the ribbing he absorbed from peers after taking the 'Menopause' gig quickly turned to envy.

'For the first month or so, other musicians kind of chuckled,' he says. 'After three months, they weren't laughing anymore.'

Williams adds that, while cultural relevance may underlie the show's popularity, it wouldn't matter if the production didn't deliver on stage.

'I think it's absolutely hysterical,' she says, 'and this is not the kind of show I typically like. My eyes were red from rubbing away the tears, I laughed so hard.'

They're loose with the lyrics

Seconds before curtain, after Bidondo and the band have rocked into the opening musical number, understudy Tina Paradiso, stagehand Kerris Cockrell and the show's cast race to a designated spot backstage and bust into a frenetic end-zone dance that has become a ritual.

Once the show gets under way, its MO is clear. The four-woman cast represents distinct character types: a Middle American housewife, a soap opera star, a no-nonsense business type and an earthy, aging hippie chick.

Crossing paths in the lingerie section of a large department store, they begin to swap stories about 'the change' in a quick-paced musical review. Lyrics from well-known songs are altered to provide commentary on menopausal life

Aretha Franklin's 'Chain of Fools' becomes 'Change of Life.' Brenda Lee's 'I'm Sorry' becomes 'I'm Flashing.'

And Betty Everett's 'It's in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)' produces the line 'If you wanna know where the fat grams go, they're on my hips.'

Get in line

No, it's not cutting-edge humor, but the smiles almost never leave the faces of a sizable Saturday afternoon audience, about 95 percent of it women.

At the end of the show, cast members exhort theatergoers to join them onstage in a spirited kick line, and dozens oblige.

'I see people next to me onstage in that kick line that are in an altered state,' says Joan Freed, who plays the hausfrau. 'It's such a relief for them to see that other people are going through this and that they can laugh about it. In generations past, people suffered on their own.'

Cast member Cherie Price, who plays the TV star, has seen the production's power to inspire.

'One time there was this woman who said, 'Last week I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thank you for helping me realize that I can get through this.' '

Another time, she says, she coaxed a woman in a wheelchair onto the stage.

'She was so excited and happy that she could participate. It made us all a little teary.'

Gwen Buzan, who lives in North Portland, has come along with her sister-in-law and her mother to see the show. She sees the show's relevance to her even if she hasn't yet reached 'the change.'

'What does age have to do with it?' she asks. 'It's good to develop a sense of humor before you get there.'

'I would say it's mostly for women,' says Judy Buzan, Gwen's mom, 'but I think the men enjoyed it just as much.'

Price, the glamorous soap star, agrees.

'We do have a lot of men,' she says. 'They're kind of a little uncomfortable, scrunching around in their seats, but as they get into it, they really enjoy it.'

Several members of the Longview Red Hat Mamas, a Southwest Washington social organization, eat up the show. Most are old enough to remember when menopause was not a topic for polite company. Or any company at all, really.

'I think we've all been there,' Mamie Spromberg, 70, says. 'It was unspeakable. It was a 'woman's problem.' '

Her friend Miriam Lopez is in an exuberant mood. 'You just want to get up and say 'Amen,' ' she says. 'It makes you feel good all over.'

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'Menopause the Musical'

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through March, closing date not yet set

Where: Portland Center for the Performing Arts, Winningstad Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, 503-248-4335

Cost: $33, PCPA box office, also available through Ticketmaster (503-790-2787), subject to service charges