The First Wives Club
There are any number of reasons, outside of the potential to make money, for putting on a Broadway show. One would be to tell a compelling tale. Another would be to showcase the talents of one or more individuals. A third would be to highlight some terrific music. A fourth (and most important, potentially) would be to provide a high level of entertainment for audiences in what has traditionally been the center of theatre in the U. S.
Unfortunately, The First Wives Club fails to at least some degree on at least three of these four reasons for its existence.
First, there is no compelling tale. The source material is the 1996 film by the same name, which, in turn, was based on Olivia Goldsmith's bestselling 1992 novel. Ms. Goldsmith, who had to rebuild her life after a divorce left her virtually penniless, wrote a feminist revenge story about three women who banded together to get back at their husbands after they found themselves in a similar predicament. By 1996, the material probably seemed at least somewhat dated, but the film was saved by strong performances from leads Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, along with great comedic support from the likes of Maggie Smith, Sarah Jessica Parker, Stockard Channing, and Marcia Gay Harden. By 2009, the story seems even more dated (albeit set in the present), and though Rupert Holmes has done an expert job of trimming, rearranging, plugging up holes and adding a bunch of clever one-liners, the basic arc of the story remains unchanged.
The film succeeded on the strength of its performances, particularly from its audience-drawing stars. So, what does the musical's creative team do? They hire three entirely capable Broadway-level musical theatre actresses (Barbara Walsh, Karen Ziemba and Sheryl Lee Ralph) none of whose names are likely to go above the title on the theatre's marquee. And then they don't trust these entirely capable Broadway-level performers to rise to star level performances by saddling their characters with too many complexities to overcome. Ms. Ziemba fares worst her character isn't even given her own song. Ms. Walsh's character does get (mostly) her own song, the first act closer, "My Heart Wants to Try One More Time," and Ms. Walsh does a fine job with threading her way through the emotional turmoil her character is asked to manifest. Of the three, however, Ms. Ralph fares best, perhaps because her character seems lifted almost directly from Dreamgirls' Deena Jones, a role Ms. Ralph originated in 1981. She also gets the eleven o'clock number, "That Was Me Then, This Is Me Now," and she knocks it out of the park. Unfortunately, the number comes at 10:30 in the storyline, so its effect is a muted one.
When you don't let the stars be stars, the path is clear for the featured performers to register, and Sam Harris as Duane the decorator nearly walks off with the show as a result. So would have Victoria Matlock as the suicidal Cynthia, had she been given a bit more stage time. It's fine to have a superior Agnes Gooch in your cast, but if Mame and Vera aren't the stars, the show doesn't work.
If you thought that the opportunity to create a musical with original songs written by Motown legends Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland would be a great idea, you'd be right. The heyday for these folks may have been the 1960s, but they haven't lost the ability to embed those terrific pop hooks into their songs, even as they switch to more of a musical comedy style of writing. I have only two complaints about the music: first, there's a bit too much of it, and the pacing of the plot drags as a result (in particular, the show could lose choreographer Lisa Stevens' dance numbers altogether); and second, the otherwise admirable orchestrations by Harold Wheeler include back-up singers (un-credited in the programperhaps they are ensemble members) in the pit whose vocals interfere with, rather than support, what the soloist is doing on stage. As good as this effort is, however, it isn't good enough to carry the show.
Which leaves us with overall entertainment value, and here the production certainly tries hard. Peter J. Davison provides sleek sliding panels to create the variety of settings necessary for a cinematic story, Paul Tazewell dresses the cast, particularly the leads, in costumes that are mostly stylish and mostly flatter, and they are ably supported by Mark McCullough's lighting design and Jon Weston's sound design. But Francesca Zambello's direction mainly consists of traffic control, and there are very few clever touches, most of which serve to distract from a few slow set changes. The show's exterior glistens with a shiny surface, but underneath is a weak story that is not compensated by clever touches in the book or by star-level performances. The creative team needs to have a better sense of why this show should work in order for it to have a chance for success in New York.
The Old Globe presents The First Wives Club: A New Musical. Now playing through August 30 at the Old Globe Theatre. Tickets: $66-$92. Box office: (619) 23-GLOBE or online at The Old Globe's website. Music and lyrics by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland. Book by Rupert Holmes. Directed by Francesca Zambello. Scenic design by Peter J. Davison, costume design by Paul Tazewell, lighting design by Mark McCullough, sound design by Jon Weston, music direction, vocal arrangements and incidental music by Ron Melrose, and choreography by Lisa Stevens.
With Barbara Walsh (Brenda), Karen Ziemba (Annie), Sheryl Lee Ralph (Elyse), Brad Oscar (Morty), John Dossett (Aaron), Kevyn Morrow (Bill), Sara Chase (Leslie/Shelley/Feebee), Sam Harris (Duane), Victoria Matlock (Cynthia), Kat Palardy (Chris), Ari Lerner/Austyn Myers (Jason), Bob Gaynor (Thad), Matthew LaBanca (Auctioneer), and ensemble members Michelle Aravena, Thursday Farrar, Martin Samuel, and Richard E. Waits.