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Cougar Prowls, But Script Clichés Mar Production

by Kimberly Lawson

Cougar Prowls, But Script Clichés Mar Production

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Picture by George Hendricks

June 15, 2015

Photos: (Top) Grant Zavitkovsky gets the business from Taffy Allen; (Bottom) Josephine Hall makes sure Zavitkovsky gets her phone number.


In “On the Prowl,” the opening song of Cougar: The Musical, the three female leads sporting trench coats dance on top of the bar, a la Coyote Ugly but tamer. It’s a fun, catchy number that sets the premise of the show – “Life is the rage in menopause stage but I’m too young to throw in the towel,” they croon – and celebrates the older woman.

But in tackling the stereotypes placed upon women who date younger men, the musical, now playing at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte under the direction of Tod A. Kubo through June 27, turns to other outdated, and sometimes uncomfortable, archetypes to tell its story.

Cougar, which premiered off Broadway in 2012 with the help of Tony Award-nominated director Lynne Taylor-Corbett, tells the story of three disillusioned women all looking for the same thing: some sense of fulfilment. Lily, a defeated 40-something-year-old children’s entertainer, has just gotten divorced from her second husband and wonders what could possibly be next. Mary-Marie is on the prowl for younger men, even owning a cougar bar called Elder Grille & Younger Boys. And Clarity, a financial analyst, quits her job to finish her master's thesis in “female studies,” focusing on how cougardom is an anti-feminist phenomenon.

The overarching message, according to playwright Donna Moore (who worked on the show for eight years), is to say yes to life, and these women all eventually do, one more than the others. Mary Marie says yes so much that she finds herself exposed in a compromising situation in Act 2 with an estranged family member, and that ultimately becomes her turning point.

While Moore touts this as a production about women’s empowerment -- humanizing the cougar and taking the derogatory tinge out of the label -- there was another subtle message: If you're a woman who needs a gentle reminder to love yourself, damn what those feminists say, sometimes it IS about finding a guy to hold you at night. Lily, who gets more of the spotlight than the others and is played by Josephine Hall, only becomes confident in herself after she’s fallen in love with Buck, a young actor who works at Elder Grille (played by Grant Zavitkovsky). It’s all sweet, of course, and we want them to have their happily ever after. Their jazzy show tune duet “Let Talk About Me,” is a courtship ritual – Lily deflects attention off herself and banters playfully with Buck, who responds in turn until they land on a common love of old movies. It’s then she reveals she’s over 45. Buck’s response? “I’m old enough to drive.” And with that funny quip, Lily writes her phone number on Buck’s hand, giving in to the budding romance.

The fact that Lily’s storyline takes a predictable, hardly “independent woman” turn is one thing. It’s the rampant clichés in Cougar that are really distracting. Zavitkovsky, the only male performer, plays Eve, the Asian woman at the nail salon, complete with broken English and a resounding gong whenever someone walks into the shop. Clarity, played by Ericka Rouse, is the opinionated African-American single mother who doesn’t need a man, while Mary-Marie, the Samantha Jones character from Sex in the City portrayed by Taffy Allen, wants little more than to simply get laid.

Despite being pigeonholed by the source material, the actors make the most of their portrayals. Allen is absolutely captivating as the quintessential cougar. Not only is Mary-Marie a familiar, beloved caricature, but Allen gives a heartfelt performance dripping with Southern charm and sass.

Ross tries her best to make stick-in-the-mud Clarity come to life, and gets her shining moment in the song “Julio.” As she clutches her vibrator of the same name, a “friend” who is always willing to offer her “a helping hand,” she serenades her sex toy with such orgasmic energy that we can’t look away. Even though it’s about as gleefully uncomfortable as what audiences experienced watching Meg Ryan’s character in When Harry Met Sally demonstrate a fake orgasm in a crowded diner.

Hall, the naive divorcee, is more likeable as a whole -- you almost want to give her a hug from the very beginning, as her character reveals her insecurities to an invisible meeting of the 40 and Fabulous club. That empathy grows when Hall nails a solo ballad about Lily’s ex-husband Gary. 

Despite its social shortcomings, Cougar is timeless, easy, and little is required of the audience but to laugh when appropriate. Some of the humor is tired and hackneyed: Of course there’s a joke about a blue pill when there’s mention of sex with a man over 50. Considering the script’s lack of cultural awareness, much less imagination, that’s no surprise. There's little to chew on here besides the ice from our cocktails. Fortunately, it's the engaging work of the performers, not to mention the pleasing tunes of the accompanying band (Mike Wilkins, Brian Quick and Gina Stewart), that keeps this show purring. 

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Tags: Cougar, musical, Actor's Theatre of Charlotte Donna Moore, Sex In the City, older women, younger men

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