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

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The First Wives Club is the latest in a long list of Hollywood favorites turned Broadway musicals. In the era of Hairspray, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Legally Blonde, it only seemed natural that the First Wives would strive to reach the Great White Way. In the story's first iteration, author Olivia Goldsmith turned her personal woes into an international best seller, which later became a movie blockbuster written by Robert Harling and directed by Hugh Wilson. Now this thirteen-year-old movie is trying to make it as a Broadway musical.

The new musical comes to us from songwriters Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, with a book by Rupert Holmes. The partnership of Holland, Dozier and Holland is a Motown institution that brought us chart-topping songs of the 60's including “How Sweet It Is,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The pairing of these Motown favorites with the First Wives seemed like a natural fit, given the unforgettable movie moment of that other 60's classic, “You Don’t Own Me.”

However, this songwriting trio should have stopped writing when their music was relevant – in the 60's. Not one of the 20 original songs written for this show would ever make it to the top of the charts. What you have is unmemorable songs, each one sounding like the last, which can make even the most beautiful voices drab and unappealing. It is evident that these songwriters should not have written for the stage, and they should leave the awful off-stage backup singing out of the final score.

Unfortunately for book writer Rupert Holmes (Curtains, Edwin Drood), he was given the daunting task of transferring the world of the First Wives popularized by the movie to the stage. With a film packed full of locations and an interweaving story line, it would have been impossible to simply lift the plot from the movie. The first of many changes was in that of the character Elyse, portrayed effortlessly by Broadway veteran Sheryl Lee Ralph (Dreamgirls, Millie). The collagen-injected, alcohol-laden, washed-up actress made famous by Goldie Hawn is replaced by a singer past her prime whose only fault was trusting her husband. The sense of a transformation of a woman who had it all into one hitting rock bottom, and then climbing back on top, is almost nonexistent. Instead we get a one-dimensional character who resembles the Elyse Elliot we know only in her magnificent attire.

Other movie fixtures that were dropped were the characters of Gunilla Garson Goldberg, played by Maggie Smith, and Catherine MacDuggan, Annie’s mom, played by Eileen Heckart. With the dismissal of these characters for logistical purposes, the plot of the story has been changed and its heart lost. While the musical flowed along the same path of the movie, it lacked passion from the characters and depth in the story. It ultimately felt like a downward spiral, since the climax of the story came within the first five minutes. One has to wonder if the writers expected the audience to be so familiar with the story that they could do away with much-needed character development. Or they were hoping that most of the audience would have forgotten the movie and would not be expecting anything as good as the celluloid manifestation.

The saving grace of the show is the stellar performances. The roles of Annie, played by Karen Ziemba (Contact, Curtains), and Brenda, played by Barbara Walsh (Falsettos, Company), stay true to the movie. Ziemba is marvelous as the neurotic, thankless Annie, and is a perfect complement to Diane Keaton. Walsh has the uncanny speaking voice of Bette Midler, and makes the lovable mother and jokester a joy to watch. Both women have stunning voices that are unfortunately not showcased by the repetitive music.

Another shining performance comes from Sam Harris (The Life) as Duane, although his role is much larger than it should have been and the number “Duarto’s Song” is in desperate need of a rewrite. Victoria Matlock as Cynthia is amazing, and how unfortunate it is that her character dies so soon. The real breakout star is Sara Chase, who not only plays Leslie, Shelley, and Feebee, all three of the husbands' girlfriends, but manages to play all three within the same song.

The ensemble is altogether lackluster, and not because there isn’t talent, but because of the poor direction of Francesca Zambello (The Little Mermaid). Careless use of the ensemble during scene transitions is meant to act as filler and distraction, but it only leaves the audience wondering why. Yes, it is musical theater, but is it really necessary to see men dressed in towels cross the stage for no apparent reason other than “sex sells?” Choreographer Lisa Stevens managed to make even a gay bar seem dull with her childlike dance moves and poor staging. And the First Wives dancing with the hotel attendants after the death of their friend is just tacky and inappropriate.

The design elements at least managed to make the show visually pleasing. Aside from the questionable finale interlaced with tie-dye, costume designer Paul Tazewell (In The Heights, The Color Purple) delightfully uses the movie's wardrobe as the backbone for his brilliant creations. The costumes were highlighted by beautiful silhouettes, a thoughtful color palette, and some pretty amazing shoes. Scenic designer Peter J. Davison faced the challenge of bringing the movies' multitude of settings to fruition on the stage. Though at times the set, like the arc of the play, falls flat, Davison’s attention to detail helps to drive the musical forward. The most beautiful moment unfortunately comes at the top of the show, as Cynthia plummets from her Park Avenue apartment. Mark McCullough’s lighting design fails to make an impression and one has to wonder if he has ever ventured into a gay bar. The sound design of Jon Weston (Les Miserables, The Color Purple) is intelligent and helps bridge the gap between stage and screen.

When we finally reach the end, what should be a big finale fails before it even begins. The movie ends with a grand ball in honor of the First Wives’ friend Cynthia, a perfect chance for all the characters to gain resolution. And after the party has ended we see the three friends dance off into the night, a perfect ending to a movie that has Broadway musical written all over it. But the writers of the musical chose to end with a ribbon-cutting ceremony as brief as the time they appear to have spent working on this show. No resolution. No final song to bring the house down. Just another monotonous moment that certainly did not have the audience standing.

While I still think the idea of The First Wives Club as a musical is brilliant, I have not been impressed with its current installment. The writers need to go back to the drawing board and fix their mistakes if they ever hope to have a successful musical. It's a shame that such a stunning cast wasn’t given better material to work with. But they haven’t reached Broadway yet. We can be hopeful that by the time the set roles into Manhattan, this show will have become a well-oiled machine and something to remember. But first, write better songs. Hire a new director. And give your designers a raise.

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

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