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Theater review: 'The First Wives Club' at the Old Globe

August 2, 2009 |  3:15 pm
The First Wives Club


One definition of "critic-proof": A dramatic work you’re meant to enjoy with your cognitive lamp on dim.

“The First Wives Club,” the new Broadway-bound musical based on the 1996 Diane Keaton-Bette Midler-Goldie Hawn middle-aged chick flick and Olivia Goldsmith’s stampeding 1992 fictional bestseller, fits this definition to a T. The show, which is receiving its world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, is obviously counting on a majority of its audience to arrive in just the right giddy mood of sisterhood solidarity.

In other words, ladies of the producers’ dreams, gather your girlfriends for a few fruity cocktails beforehand and enter the theater already squealing with laughter. (White ensembles, like the ones donned by the film’s radiant triumvirate, are a plus, though not required).

Now, if you can overlook the often generic R&B elevator music of Motown writing legends Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, the cut-and-pasted and cursorily reimagined book by Rupert Holmes, and the fact that the three stars (Barbara Walsh, Karen Ziemba and Sheryl Lee Ralph) seem like they barely know each other, you might very well have a night to remember -- though you’ll need plenty of aspirin and water the next day.

The good news is that a sizable percentage of theatergoers will still be able to extract some satisfaction from the inherently intoxicating revenge tale of three discarded wives teaching their creepy philandering husbands a financial lesson they won’t soon forget. Who could resist rooting for these conniving old college chums, reunited after the suicide of their dear friend Cynthia (Victoria Matlock ) and determined to prove to their worse halves that they can’t be replaced by younger, more nubile airheads without neutering divorce settlements?

Sara Chase gamely plays all three home-wrecking vixens, including Annie’s therapist, whose counseling method involves personally introducing Aaron (John Dossett) to the pleasures of leather and whips. If the First-Wives-photo-gallerymen come off as caricatured heels — and Brad Oscar’s Morty and Kevyn Morrow’s Bill are no better to their respective wives, Brenda and Elyse, than Dossett’s arrogantly self-absorbed Aaron is to Annie — it only intensifies the delight of their eventual comeuppance.

But it’s a shame director Francesca Zambello’s lavishly perfunctory production doesn’t uncover any more originality than the creators of “9 to 5: The Musical” managed to unearth in their pop-feminist-movie-to-musical-makeover. The default mode here is pallid cliche, and there are too many scenes in which the cast is simply going through the sentimental or ecstatic motions.

Take “Jump for Joy,” one of the lesser songs written by the Holland-Dozier-Holland trio that cranked out instant classics for the Supremes, the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye. This upbeat ditty is set in a supposedly wild and sexually fluid New York club in which mousy Annie (Ziemba taking on Keaton’s role) and soul diva Elyse (Ralph, playing a revamped version of Hawn's character) have run off to meet Duane (Sam Harris, running on campy adrenaline), Brenda’s gay BFF who is going to be instrumental in taking their adulterous spouses to the cleaners.

Chris (a vibrant Kat Palardy), Annie’s lesbian daughter who happens to be hanging out at the disco, wants to see her mother lose her inhibitions and cut loose on the dance floor. But this hackneyed number is devoid of any danger or daring, and Lisa Stevens’ rah-rah choreography only adds to the euphoria’s artificiality.

After a disappointingly plodding first act, all this forced cheer is rather dispiriting, but the musical has a couple of lively segments in store for us. Holmes only smudgily sets up the kooky payback schemes, but that doesn’t prevent Oscar from entering into a zone of utter delirium during the making of Mad Morty’s Superbowl commercial for his appliance store. Nor does it stop Ralph's Elyse from giving the giant finger snap to Bill’s latest talentless protegee. With a bluesy purr, the confident pro shows the ditsy wannabe just how "Love for All Seasons" should be majestically delivered.

But these fresh bits are few and far between, and the production, though sprightly designed by Peter J. Davison (sets), Paul Tazewell (costumes) and Mark McCullough (lighting), tarries in an unelectric limbo that lacks even the solid sincerity of "One Sweet Moment," the song in which wives and husbands reveal their gaping romantic difference.

Furthering the wan impression, the amplification system fails to give the voices the necessary lift. This is more noticeable than usual because the bland score is all about the whoops and whooshes of the singers, as musical director Ron Melrose (who also did the vocal arrangements and incidental music) surely knows.

Harmlessly entertaining though it may be, this inaugural outing of “The First Wives Club” is not a theatrical marriage made in heaven. Annulment is one way to go, but as moneymaking hope springs eternal for commercial musicals, creative couple’s therapy might still be able to pull off a miracle. How about we start with the characters played by Walsh, Ziemba and Ralph finally getting acquainted with one another?

-- Charles McNulty

"The First Wives Club," Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends: Aug. 30. $55-$92. (619) 234-5623. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Photo: Barbara Walsh (Brenda), from left, Sheryl Lee Ralph (Elyse) and Karen Ziemba (Annie) in "The First Wives Club." Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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