Richmond Times Dispatch

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Theater review: ‘Breast in Show’

You might not expect to meet comedy in a chemotherapy ward. But irreverent humor bubbles up often in “Breast in Show,” a breast cancer-themed musical whose characters spend a good deal of time in a hospital’s chemo treatment zone.

For instance, at one point in director Billy Christopher Maupin’s lively production of the musical — at Virginia Repertory Theatre’s Willow Lawn Stage — a group of gutsy cancer-patient characters interacts with a zany wig vendor, played by Andrew Hamm.

Submitting stoically to their IV drips, the patients — who have lost their hair during treatment — look on bemusedly as the exuberant vendor pulls headdresses out of a pink trunk: red, curly locks worthy of a femme fatale; a clutch of ebullient dreadlocks; and more.

“Try a hairpiece that hangs! /Add a hat! Add some bangs!/ Or a turban!” the vendor sings, pulling a silky turban over his own head and striking a regal pose.

Humor can be a survival strategy for the sick and beleaguered, so it’s apt that levity should abound in “Breast in Show,” an earnest, smartly constructed 80 minutes of theater created by book writer Lisa Hayes and composer/lyricist Joan Cushing, based on a concept by Eileen Mitchard.

Presented in Richmond by Carol Piersol, in partnership with Virginia Rep, the musical depicts — in short, snappy scenes and longer songs — the diagnosis, treatment and (mostly) recovery of various breast cancer patients: a workaholic lawyer named Wendy (Lauren Leinhaas-Cook), a fragile young mother named Chelsea (Brittany D. Simmons), a wisecracking man named Pete (Russell Rowland) and others.

Hanging out in the chemo ward, these characters support one another by telling jokes; their brave quips harmonize with Cushing’s witty, cabaret-style musical numbers, which include a torch song for a deadly cancer cell (Chloe Williams, in a sultry black dress and red feather boa); an aria for pompous doctors who warble incomprehensible medical jargon; and a ballad for an elderly woman who has a crush on her oncologist. (Jeanie Rule is droll as the amorous patient, who looks rapt as the doctor, played by Rowland, probes her mouth with a tongue depressor.)

Not that “Breast in Show” is all laughs: Exchanging humor for poignancy, the production periodically spotlights characters in moments of vulnerability.

In a couple of touching mini-monologues, for instance, Wendy’s husband (Hamm, speaking quietly in a pool of dim light) talks about how lonely he feels as he tries to be a pillar of courage for his spouse.

Lynne M. Hartman designed the relatively sophisticated lighting, which jazzes up the minimal set. Maupin and Nikki Wragg designed the character-appropriate costumes.

Maupin and choreographer Jennifer Hammond do an admirable job keeping the scenes fluid. (There are some clever almost-dance numbers featuring the hospital chairs and IV drips, for instance.)

On opening night, the singing and acting were occasionally hesitant, but the production will probably gain poise in subsequent performances. The three-piece band is already launching into Cushing’s score with gusto.