Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland
Book by Linda Bloodworth Thomason
Directed by Simon Phillips
Produced by Broadway in Chicago
New Musical Will Struggle Awhile Yet
First Wives Club, an original musical based on the 1990s movie and book of the same name about three scorned women seeking revenge, opened after nearly a month of previews on Wednesday, but will still need significant retooling if it is to become a lasting success. The good news is that most of the humor in the first act works well. Despite the script’s trouble determining how seriously to take itself, I laughed a lot, along with most of the audience. The problems became more evident in the second act, when the plot’s attempt to sort itself out overwhelmed the goofiness of the show’s initial charm, and the music remained unmemorable and surprisingly irrelevant to the experience.
The story begins with Cynthia (Michelle Duffy), a middle-aged woman who has recently been dumped by her husband, throwing herself off a high-rise building in despair. At her funeral, Annie, Brenda, and Elise (Carmen Cusack, Faith Prince, and Christine Sherrill) her three best friends from college meet for the first time since their weddings, and go to Elise’s place for drinks afterwards. It turns out each of them is wealthy, and credits themselves for the success of the businesses they manage with their husbands. They are especially put-off, therefore, that their men all leave them for younger, unworthy bitches. With the help of some gay stereotypes and clips of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s oldies, they plot how to regain their companies and punish their rivals.
A Broadway show’s success depends more on spectacle and sentimentality than depth, and that’s where audiences risk disappointment. Gabriela Tylesova’s set design looks like a Holocaust museum. The worst is a funeral home with looming fifty foot high brick walls, narrow, rectangular portals into blackness, and dangling florescent lights. The neo-Brutalist homes and offices rely on Roy Lichtenstein-style modernist art for a touch of humanity. The exception is a deliberately ugly house that has been taken over by one of the usurping skanks, and decorated with fuzzy pink throw-overs and a massive statue of Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit. Tylesova is much better with the costumes, which had a gaudiness that both parodied and celebrated designer labels, and were as much fun to watch as the more successful antics.
Speaking of which, my favorite scene was a Marx-brothers like routine involving the three first wives sneaking around an apartment, attempting to hide in plain sight, and falling from a window cleaner’s suspended platform (unlike Cynthia, this does not kill them). The whole cast has a lot of comedic talent, and the wives complement each other. Elise is an aging pop singer with lots of plastic surgery and developing alcoholism, who Sherrill plays with flightiness and whimsy. Carmen Cusak, as Annie the ad agency director, is restrained, nerdy, and gentle. Faith Prince’s Brenda, as a full-bodied Italian Jew who’s good with money, is brash and earthy, but has the greatest capacity for reconciliation. The home-wreckers are pretty much interchangeable, as are the husbands, with Brenda’s (Seán Murphy Cullen) being a bit more of a sad sack, and Annie’s treacherous therapist (Lindsey Alley) being a bit more clever. The strangest character is gay best friend Duane Fergusson (Patrick Richwood), who even comments that he’s outdated. Since the story is set in 1992, this must be a meta-reference to his character type, and yet, the play uses him in the long-established manner as counselor and vital back-up.
While the singers are serviceable, the music is boring. While we get a bit of “Stop in the Name of Love,” and “Can’t Help Myself,” most of the new songs sounded like clips from longer compositions, and do not compare well with their predecessors. Most of Act II is the same two songs being repeated by each husband and then each wife, but less than twenty-four hours after hearing them, I can’t remember a thing about them. The young woman Elise’s husband ran off with, Cassandra Clark (Allison Woods) is an aspiring Christian country-rocker, and while I understand her song in which she insincerely apologizes to Elise is supposed to be obnoxious, the show falls on its face every time it departs from R&B. The choreography is also uninspired.
So, prospective audiences must ask themselves whether First Wives Club’s ticket price is worth a lot of laughs in the first act and a few in the second, because it has little else to recommend it. I saw a steady stream of people leaving during Act II, which is unusual. Of course, the point of a pre-Broadway showing is to work out problems, but First Wives Club needs to figure out why it’s even a musical, other than to justify higher ticket prices. The mishmash of ballads on love over forty, a friend’s suicide, and rich old lady solidarity clashes with the slapstick, one-liners, and wacky disguises. And while it’s silly to take a show like this seriously (although it seems to sometimes want to be), I’m not sure if the best way of pandering to mothers is to flip off their husbands and daughters; it certainly won’t endear itself to anyone outside its target demographic. The wives’ clever scheming also doesn’t hold up under examination. Annie’s husband exits the play telling her she’ll never win in court, and he’s probably right. If you go, be prepared to put some money down on drinks, and don’t think too much.
Reviewed March 12, 2015
For more information, see First Wives Club: The Musical’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph Street. Tickets are $33-100 and may be purchased by calling 800-775-2000 or visiting www.BroadwayInChicago.com. Shows are Tuesday-Friday at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 2:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm with an additional performance on March 15 at 7:30 pm. Plays through March 29. Running time is two hours and thirty minutes, with one intermission.