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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

Comments () | Archives (15)

I saw the play this afternoon and could not stop laughing at Sara Chase's performance. Playing multiple key characters, she was the most dynamic actor of the group and really stood out amongst the cast due to her comic timing. The men in the ensemble also did a tremendous job singing and dancing. They weren't to sore on the eyes either;( I highly recommend seeing this show!

I saw this on thursday night and think there's something there. There are definetly structural problems and major recasting that needs to happen (ie the 3 wives) but Sara Chase was the highlight of this show. I didnt even know she played all the women until the curtain call! Brad Oscar is hilarious too as Morty.

I saw this last week with my girlfriends. We absolutely loved it and couldn't stop laughing through it. Highly recommend it for a great girls night out at the theater.... all of us couldn't stop talking about it afterwards.

I actually thought it was actually better than the movie.. So i don't know what you're talking about in that comment .... I thought the show really took it beyond the film. And I saw 9 to 5 as well and it was such a mimic of the film .. 9 to 5 didn't really even try to create a new theatrical experience ... First Wives felt like a new piece..

Well.. my two cents ... actually, two cents from five girls who loved it, which makes ten cents! HA!

My sister and I went to one of the previews last week and we thought it was one of the funniest shows we've seen in a long while. Really great time. Clever, smart.. and surprisingly moving at times. I cried at the end of first Act.

We also thought it was better then the film. I mean, it's certainly still has the plot of the film, but they they really tried to take it farther in different places.

Definitely a great night out .. especially with your sisters!!!

I do not agree with this review at all. I saw the show twice already because I liked it so much! I think this show is going to go to broadway and be a hit! I cannot get the songs out of my head! I hope this review does not effect the show because I totally disagree with it. I could recommend seeing this show to anybody!

I saw this show yesterday afternoon (Sunday.) I hated it. There are major problems, and here's why: In the film, all three ladies had vices/problems they needed to overcome before they could be empowered. Whether it was liquor, food, or self-esteem, each had to battle their own demons before they could battle their husband. When each of the film's character overcame their vices, you cared and were behind them 100% By removing this storyline, what you re left with is three interchangeable characters, none of whom you care for one iota. You do not root for them nor care if they pay back their husbands for cheating and abandoning them. The biggest misstep is changing the Goldie Hawn character from a drunken fallen Oscar-winning actress to a soul diva, and NOT taking advantage to it! With all the troubles Whitney Houston has had, it was a perfect chance to use that to the character's advantage. Instead, what you have is a shrew, and you care not that the husband is a jerk. The musical score sounds like one song re-written a dozen times. None of the songs seems like it was written for any one character. They are interchangeable and dull. Last, the token gay character is a stereotypical gay "Sambo" and insult to the gay community. Good freakin LORD! This is 2009. Not every gay man is a limp-wristed flamboyant queen! I could go on, but why bother? This show will never make it to Broadway in it's current incarnation. Ans, if it does, it will close within a week.

The show needs major work, much more than cutting it down from its 3-hour length. All of the songs are completely forgettable. Each main character should have a differentiating showstopper, but every song sounds the same. You feel sorry for them for singing their hearts out since there isn't a melody to be heard. (The lyrics, on the other hand, are great.) It's a convoluted hodgepodge. The cast is uniformly great, which makes it all the more tragic.

Saw it. Loved it. and felt the music was one of the best things in it. I'm a 50 year old mother of three who goes to ALOT of theater, musicals especially. The lyrics were powerful, strong, and fit the material. And the melodies were empowering, touching, moving, rousing .. all that. I actually didn't know it was by Holland Dozier HOlland, nor did I actually know who Holland Dozier Holland was until afterwards ....
Some of the songs were so true and dead on...

And not only am I mother, but i'm divorced mother.

Caught the show last week. I wasn't expecting much, as I don't normally like movies to musical musicals .. .but I found myself laughing through most of it.

It's definitely worth seeing ... if not for Sarah Chase alone, playing the two bimbos and sex doctor. Add to that Brad Oscar's performance as MOrty which is over the top hilarious! Top it off with a kick butt moment with Sheryl Lee Ralph singing a song called That Was Me Then in the second act. Brought the house down.

saw a prview of the musical .. It has hit written all over it, it's just the words hit are a little blurry at the moment. So yeah, it needs some reworking and refining, and the first Act is a little long and needs ironing out ... but I felt some solid bones are there, and then some!

I saw the show opening night and I think there is a hit in the works. I am not a theater enthusiast but I really enjoyed the show. There are many moments of laughter. My highlights were the fact that the women are diverse. I am glad Sheryl Lee Ralph was casted as an R&B Diva, the role fits her til the curtain comes down. Sheryl shows off her voice with the solo number that was me then, this is me now. Sara Chase is amazing playing the role of 3 girlfriends. My favorite scene is the auction and I am still singing "Pay Backs a B", very catchy tune. I also like the scene when all the couples sing together, I don't remember the title of the song but it is a very nice song. My only criticism is the choreography, it definitely needs some work. But I know when it is on Broadway, there will be faboulous dancers casted for the ensemble. I will tell anyone if you want a good night of laughter, see the "First Wives Club". This is entertainment. That why you buy tickets to be entertained...

I read this review before I saw the show and I have to say, while some of the criticisms are valid, it's amazingly inaccurate to the experience I had. Sure there are things that need work, but what I came away with was a show that was funny, well structured, with fresh new music, and one the audiences loved enough to give standing ovations to.

Which leaves me questioning, are reviewers that out of touch with what the public responds to? Did I see a different show than the one that was reviewed? I'm flummoxed, as is my husband, and our companions that joined us.

We all belly-laughed through most of the show, and found the ballads a nice surprise, as we were only expecting a comedy. Admittedly, I cried from the song, One Sweet Moment in Act II. Not only is it a beautifully moving song, but it's staged beautifully as a sextet.

I will say that the music seemed a little undernourished throughout, especially since it's coming from Holland Dozier Holland, but I assume that can and will get better.

Anyway, it was really a fun night for the four of us, which really leaves me puzzled about this review and I felt compelled to provide my opinion, which represents four opinions from paying viewers. We all felt we got our monies worth, and then some.

There is much to kvetch about in First Wives, but I'll focus on the old fashioned message. My partner complained that the show was too Up With People for her taste.

And it was. These women, whose bond was thoroughly unconvincing, were marching towards empowerment. It gave empowerment a bad name. When the gals and one redeemed husband open up a women's center to honor their fallen comrade, well, you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

The right word for it was CRINGE. We cringed throughout.If you want an opportunity to see what kind of play produces a cringe, well, this is it.

At the end of the play, the SD audience stood up and roared approval. What is up with that? Maybe the Padres have dulled our senses.

Barbara, are you familiar with the film? If not, I suggest watching the film, as it may help you, (and others that enjoyed this musical who are confused by the negativity towards this production) understand what could have been, and what is sorely lacking. In my comments above, I mentioned the lack of character development for the three ladies. I still think this was a major flaw in the production. Each woman was interchangeable, as were the songs they sang. Perhaps it was the performances of the film's leads as much as the writing -- I am not sure. But the character development is so much more successful in the film. Also, the break in the story at intermission was awkward. The perfect place in the story to break would have been the three woman empowering themselves and planing their revenge against their husbands as well as Cynthia's husband. That opens up Act II with an exciting place in the story -- not just the continuation of some scene in a club with the flamboyant token gay character.

The film, while not a masterpiece by any means was structurally sound and the characters were defined and clear. Had this been in the production at the Old Globe, the difference would have been night/day.

Unfortunately, New York critics and audiences are far more critical than elsewhere. This production will get skewered if it remains intact. It happened to "9 to 5," and that was a far superior production than "The First Wives Club."

I am not a critic, but I do have about 20 years' worth of experience as a performer in musical theater. So, I'd like to think I know what I'm talking about. LOL!

This show is in a word .... wretched. I saw it last night and the lackluster first act seemed to go on and on and on and on -- arriving nowhere. With a few notable exceptions the music was abysmal by any standard and the so-called choreography was even more abysmal. I can't believe that anyone familiar with the Broadway show scene would ever invest a dime in this lemon. Yes, I know - I am from NYC -therefore I'm prejudiced. However, my wife is from LA and was in total agreement.


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