Imagine you're famous. Imagine the world wants a piece of you. Imagine you want to disappear.
In this compelling new musical by Scott Keys, Liv Cummins and Rob Hartmann, the impossible happens for three powerful women: mystery novelist Agatha Christie, evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and aviator Amelia Earhart. In life, all three disappeared—Christie for two weeks and McPherson for a month in 1926, while Earhart disappeared forever in 1937—and each women's hiatus was a mystery. In Vanishing Point, all three wind up in the same place.
The play bends reality to make a point—as slim as it might be—that mystery is practically a human requirement, necessary to the creation of an interesting life. It's not a particularly profound point, but the show is enjoyable, especially in the seamless first act. Strong musical interludes in a variety of styles and smart, funny lyrics perfectly blend the factual events of each woman's life until, just before intermission, the women vanish into an alternate reality.
That reality is a deserted island where time has stopped, and it's no surprise that's where Cummins' book stalls. If you're somewhere where time stops, there's no pressing need to go anywhere or do anything—and that's what happens. It's only a brief interlude, but a potentially lethal one, and the play doesn't pick up until Cummins gives the women the dignity of their bad choices—as well as their good.
The mechanism for the women's disappearances is meager: they're all stymied by the men in their lives. Christie's husband is cheating, Earhart's husband has her on a continuous publicity tour, and McPherson is having an affair with a co-worker. That humbug conceit—that men are the reason for all their troubles—robs the women of their power and simply isn't factually accurate. Christie checked into a health spa under the name of her husband's mistress, but later claimed amnesia. McPherson claimed to be kidnapped only to escape, but was actually on a tryst with a lover. Earhart likely crashed into the ocean or on a deserted island.
James R. Taulli's staging is a sterling example of how to use a small space to optimum effect, but his what-me-worry? attitude toward the play's technical aspects (costumes, hairstyles and props aren't period accurate; sound and lighting design are sloppy and intrusive) mucks with the show's professionalism. Dana Meller sings like an angel but is too much the flirty coquette to imitate the butch Earhart. Similarly, Eve Himmelheber's McPherson: she doesn't look or act anything like the huckster she's playing, but she belts out songs like a clear-throated carnival barker as she pimps God to the fundamentalist masses. Jodi Julian's voice was a little thin on the evening I saw the show, but her performance was the most empathetic, capturing Christie's nervous nature and wounded heart perfectly. But for the faux-feminist male-blaming, we might believe these vanished women were truly powerful.
Vanishing Point at Cal State Fullerton, Grand Central Theatre, 125. N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 278-3371. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Aug. 18. $5-$10.