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Theatre Review (San Diego): First Wives Club at the Old Globe Theatre

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It is becoming a trend for Broadway producers to premiere new musicals in San Diego, at either the Old Globe Theatre (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) or the La Jolla Playhouse (Jersey Boys). The Old Globe alone has been responsible for sending 20 productions on to Broadway.

The latest Broadway-bound offering is The First Wives Club, with a book by Rupert Holmes and music by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, the trio who wrote music for the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, and Martha and the Vandellas. Francesca Zambello directs and Lisa Stevens is the choreographer.

The story is, of course, based on the hit Hollywood movie by the same name and Oliver Goldsmith’s bestselling novel. Four classmates get together in middle age only to find they share the same fate: their husbands are leaving them. This proves too much for one of the women (Victoria Matlock, in great singing voice), who decides to end it all. This spurs the "First Wives Club," as the remaining woman call themselves, to take matters into their own hands and exact revenge, with the help of a gay friend, Duane (Sam Harris).

The cast is loaded with stars: Karen Ziemba (Contact, Steel Pier, Curtains, Never Gonna Dance), Barbara Walsh (Falsettos, Hairspray, Nine), and Sheryl Lee Ralph (Dreamgirls, Thoroughly Modern Millie). Yet even with all this talent the show fails to ignite. It reminded me of the short-lived Nine To Five, which had a lot of great moments but did not gel as a whole.

There are also problems with several other aspects of the show. When it is dramatic and plays to the performers' strengths it works best, but to have a dancer like Ziemba in the cast and not let her really dance seems criminal. I found Zambello's direction uninspired, though she did keep things moving. More serious, however, is the fact that no one changes or grows in the piece, except for one wife, who had been a holdout, finally deciding to get even. It doesn't say much good about women (or men for that matter, seeing as they are all busy chasing younger women) that all they can do is exact revenge. I didn’t like it in the movie and I don’t like it here.

There are some fine supporting performances from John Dossett, Brad Oscar, and Kevyn Morrow. Sam Harris is his usual over-the-top self, but did he have to be named Duane and have a scene in a disco that's right out of Applause? (That character was also gay and named Duane!) Special praise is due Sara Chase, who played all the "other women" – and we didn’t guess that until curtain call. Her number with Karen Ziemba, "Have Your Way with Me," was one of the highlights of the show. Rupert Holmes' dialogue was snappy and often quite amusing.

First Wives Club plays at the Old Globe Theatre until Aug. 30th.

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