“First Wives Club”
When: Through Aug. 30. Showtimes: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Info: (619) 23-GLOBE
Theater Review: First Wives Club Not Ready for Broadway
By Patricia Morris Buckley
The ads for the Old Globe Theatre’s “First Wives Club” say it is Broadway bound, and that may be true, but don’t count on it happening anytime soon. There’s a lot that really works in this show, but still much that needs to be worked on.
Most people know “The First Wives Club” from the film version with Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler. The film is based on a novel by Olivia Goldsmith, written after being dumped by her husband. Her novel played out a revenge fantasy that she couldn’t live out in real life.
The story begins with four college roommates who drift apart after getting married. They meet up again at the funeral of Cynthia, who dived off a tall building when her husband left her for a much younger woman. The remaining roommates are timid Annie, who gave up her career to marry an ad man, Brenda, who has a 13-year-old son with the head of a discount electronics chain, and Elyse, now a famous singer (in the movie, she was a film star). They too suddenly find themselves in similar single-like situations and decide to make their exes pay for leaving them.
The first act is what needs the most polishing — super-sized polishing, to be exact. The music misses many of the emotional beats and the buildup to the revenge plot is far too slow. Rupert Holmes’ book (the nonmusical part of the show) is sharp and witty, and his ending is extremely satisfying. But the three women dither for far too long as they decide whether to act or not. It’s the revenge plot that hooks us and it’s not really introduced until the final moments of the first act.
The songs are by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, one of the hottest song writing teams in rock and roll (“Baby Love,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” among many others) but they seem to struggle with the musical theatre form. Their best tunes are the showstoppers, such as “A Man Like Me,” a campy and upbeat song sung by Brenda’s interior designer friend, Duane. But the emotional moments seem to slip by them and that’s where music works best in a musical. A song that refrains with “I’m ready for a change in my life,” 16 times in a row just can’t capture what those words really mean.
To give them credit, the second act music is far better, especially Annie’s soul-baring “This is Me Now” and Elyse’s “That Was Me Then, This Is Me Now.” When the emotional beats are there, then the showstoppers feel more organic to the storyline. One last quibble is that every character seems to get at least one song, which makes several of them feel like filler.
One interesting note about the production is how it makes eye candy of most of the male characters. There’s a lot of suggestive dancing that, if women were involved instead, would feel sexist. That’s an interesting twist, although it still seems to say that a woman needs a man.
While all the performances are excellent, there are a few that stand out. Barbara Walsh’s Brenda practically bleeds on stage, so we really feel the character’s pain. Sara Chase is impressive as the three mistresses, giving each a definable difference that goes beyond her three wigs and quick changes. And Sam Harris is a total delight as Duane. He pours his whole self into the performance and makes the audience want to sing along.
But the real stars of the show are the production elements. Peter J. Davidson’s set is gorgeous and functional at the same time. Dark chevron walls that expand and collapse like the iris of a camera give several scenes the feel of a film. Illuminated panels move around and change color to create many varied scenes so well, that the large stage feels visually full at all times.
Paul Tazewell’s costumes seem only clever until Brenda comes out in a large man’s shirt and we see that characters can wear their grief. Mark McCullough’s light is defining and equally emotional. Director Francesca Zambello gives the show a needed quick pacing and allows each character a real emotional arc.
Whoever thought that “First Wives Club” would make a good musical was right, but we’ll have to wait a while before it becomes a Broadway-worthy show.
Patricia Morris Buckley has been reviewing the arts in San Diego for 25 years.