Chicago Theatre Review
Is There a Doctor in the House?
First Wives Club – Broadway in Chicago
With the amount of money and talent being poured into this bound-for-Broadway musical, one would expect an exciting show that sends patrons out of the theatre with big smiles on their faces. That’s not the case with this show, now previewing in Chicago, but still in need of some doctoring. It’s a shame because the premise is funny, as proved by the popular 1996 film, which starred Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton. The movie wasn’t a musical (except for the much-missed Lesley Gore hit, “You Don’t Own Me,” which is omitted from this production), so the talented Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland were tapped to write the score. While it’s not a terrible show, it lacks much of what audiences expect from a new musical.
Linda Bloodworth Thomason, known for “Designing Women” and other TV and film writing, adapted the screenplay for the stage; thus it flows with the staccato, cinematic rhythm of a movie or television sitcom. And while the theatrical script provides its share of zingers and funny dialogue, the musical’s biggest laughs come from lines taken directly from the film. Robert Harling and Paul Rudnick’s screenplay, adapted from Olivia Goldsmith’s 1992 novel of the same name, was criticized for the same things that weigh down this stage version. When the plot sags we get sight gags and quick retorts, rather than storyline development. As Roger Ebert said of the film, “It’s heavy on incident but light on plot.”
The musical sports the same three leading characters: Brenda, Annie and Elise. Although a couple smaller roles have been condensed into one, the play follows the exact same plot. It doesn’t really add anything new, although there are a few changes from the original film. For instance, instead of being a movie star who’s won Oscars and Golden Globes, Elise is now a once-famous singing star who treasures her Grammy Award. But familiar scenes, such as the girls’ escape from Morty’s high-rise in a window washer’s scaffold, a TV commercial promoting Morty Cushman’s electronic appliance store and the Sotherby’s auction scene, are still there.
The score by famed Motown songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland, includes several of their more infectious hits, such as “Stop, in the Name of Love,” “Reach Out” and “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch).” The new material however, created especially for this production, doesn’t quite have the same punch as their 60’s song sensations. With the exception of “Shoulder to Shoulder,” the rousing finale for Act I, and “Old Me, New Me” in Act II, the new songs aren’t that memorable. Each of the girls gets her own ballad, and they’re well sung but feel more like they’re from a cool cabaret act.
Simon Phillips’ direction is pretty much all in-your-face slapstick and silliness, with a few moments of honest, emotional connection. And while there are some excellent dancers among the show’s talented ensemble, David Connolly’s choreography doesn’t really offer much challenge or an opportunity for them to shine in this show. The scenic and costume design by Gabriela Tylesova is sleek and retro high-tech, especially many of her stunning costume creations, but the sets look plain and unfinished. There’s very little texture or visual appeal, although she must be commended for accomplishing myriads of locations with pieces that simply slide into place and retreat to later form new locales.
The cast is the best thing about this production, with powerhouse performances by the three leading ladies. Broadway star and extraordinary character actress/singer Faith Prince is excellent as Brenda, the role Better Midler made famous in the film version. She throws off bon mots and snide commentary with the dry delivery of a Catskill comic. Carmen Cusack is gorgeous, very funny and sings up a storm in the Diane Keaton role of Annie. Chicago favorite and Jeff Award-winning actress Christine Sherrill is dynamite as faded star Elise, borrowing just enough of Goldie Hawn’s film characterization to strike a familiar chord, while still making the role her own. All three ladies are powerhouse belters and make the score sound even better than it is.
Broadway’s Gregg Edelman (who’s beautiful voice is unfortunately wasted in this role), Mike McGowan (handsome, suave and looking great in a Speedo) and, especially, the charming, comical Sean Murphy Cullen portray ex-husbands Aaron Walker, Bill Acton and Morty Cushman with enthusiasm and humor, without coming off as pure villains. Patrick Richwood is funny, mining as much humor possible as Duane, a stereotypical gay hairstylist who helps the ladies with their scheme. Allison Woods and Morgan Weed play the young, blond bimbette girlfriends Cassandra and Shelley with a combination of sweet innocence and sultry sexiness.
So anticipated, yet so disappointing, this new Broadway-bound musical will need some quick plastic surgery from a good script doctor and a new direction, if it expects to make it with New York’s critical crowds. Right now the show feels tired and worn out, when it should be showing some real life. Maybe the musical needs to scrap some of its faithfulness to the film and create some new exploits for these women. Perhaps if more of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Motown hits were added it would make this show sizzle. The cast is greater than the the material they have to work with but, given a jolt of theatrical Botox and surge of musical Viagra, this story, which already has a built-in fan base, could be the next big thing on Broadway.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 11-March 29 by Broadway in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago.
Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, at the BIC ticket line at 800-775-2000, at all Ticketmaster locations and online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.