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'First Wives Club' talks about shoes

July 25, 2009 | 10:00 am

Let's talk about shoes.

"The First Wives Club" -- the new musical based on the 1996 movie and the 1992 novel, opening July 31 at San Diego's Old Globe -- is all about blasting the stereotype of the washed-up, frumpy middle-aged female as three 50-plus and still fabulous women (Karen Ziemba, Barbara Walsh and Sheryl Lee Ralph) dance and sing their way through this tale of midlife girl power.

In this video, they're hoofing it through segments of the numbers "Ready for a Change" and "Jump for Joy" -- with music and lyrics by Motown veterans Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, and choreography by Lisa Stevens. 

But some stereotypes die hard, and during a recent "can we talk" chat with the girls at the Old Globe, the conversation eventually turned to shoes. Not the spike-heeled, $500 pumps and mules that have always seem to dominate the lives (and pocketbooks) of the "Sex and the City" characters, but the footwear required to make it through Stevens' energetic choreography.

Included in Stevens' credits is the stage choreography for "Disney's High School Musical" 1 and 2, and as she put the three women through their paces during an earlier rehearsal for "Jump for Joy," she seemed disinclined to cut any of the jumps because her stars are a few years past the senior prom.  Ziemba's ability to trust was called into play as she let herself fall from a table into the waiting arms of a bevy of male dancers. 

Karen Ziemba 

Culture Monster is not sure whether the move will end up in the show, but on that day a favorite Stevens invention for Ziemba in "Jump for Joy" was the "shopping cart," in which Ziemba's timid character, Annie, pantomimes plucking items off the grocery shelves and dumping them into her basket, with attitude -- she's husband-free now, honey, and girlfriend chooses what she wants.

The First Wives talked a little bit about men; Ralph, though now happily married to Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent J. Hughes, recalls the pain of a divorce. "It's sometimes weird going though the script. . . . When I was divorced, I felt like I was a failure; I felt like a statistic, My self-esteem was just gone," she says. Walsh points out that her own life is the reverse of the wives in the show, who are dumped for younger women: Her husband, stage director Jack Cummings, is 13 years younger than she is. "Does that make me a cougar?" she asks slyly.

But back to the shoes: While putting on high heels makes it easier to feel empowered onstage, it's also hard to get used to. "I have to figure out what kind of padding will keep me up there for that length of time," Ralph jokes. "Had I known that when I was younger, I wouldn't have some of the problems I have now -- but no, I wouldn't listen. Honey, it's sensible shoes now. It's very sad."

Says Walsh, who hasn't had to dance since her dinner theater days, "Feet are very tough when you get older. About five years ago I tried to put my foot in my wedding shoe that I wore when I was 15 years younger, a Peter Fox, and I couldn't. I thought I was still a size 9."

But those high heels are going on for the show, no matter what: "Vanity -- that's right, baby, bring on those Jimmy Choos,"  Ralph crows. Adds Walsh with a laugh, "Bunions and all!"

Read less about footwear, more about the making of the pre-Broadway musical "The First Wives Club" at the Old Globe in my story in Sunday's Arts & Books section.

-- Diane Haithman

Photo: Karen Ziemba in "The First Wives Club." Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Related coverage:

Picketing planned for 'First Wives Club' opening at Old Globe

Sheryl Lee Ralph replaces Tony winner in 'First Wives Club'

Tony-winning talent set for 'The First Wives Club'