Take a hit movie about a trio of 40something wives getting even with husbands who’ve abandoned them for younger women, add songs written by a trio who can truly be called legendary, cast the show with some of Broadway’s finest performers—and you have The First Wives Club, a thoroughly entertaining new musical now in its pre-Broadway run at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, under the brisk direction of Francesca Zambello.

You remember Annie, Brenda, and Elyse, portrayed in the 1996 film by Diane Keaton, Bette Midler, and Goldie Hawn, right?  Annie’s the all-American housewife and mother prone to apologize for everything she does or has ever done.  Brenda’s the Jewish wife whose chubby hubby stars in self-promoting TV commercials for his eponymous appliance store. Elyse is the glamorous movie star who doesn’t look a day older than she did when she was 20, thanks to her plastic surgeon. 

They’re all back, brought to musical comedy life by Tony winner Karen Ziemba and Tony nominees Barbara Walsh and Sheryl Lee Ralph.  The three jilted wives are every bit as set on revenge as were their film counterparts, and who can blame them?  Annie’s husband Aaron (Tony nominee John Dossett) has left her for their sexy marriage counselor, who seems to feel that her dalliance with Annie’s hubby is the best way for Annie to breathe new life into her life. Brenda’s husband Morty (Tony nominee Brad Oscar) has taken up with the razor-voiced spokesmodel for his TV spots, a gal with an IQ the size of a peanut. Recording star Elyse’s husband/manager Bill (Kevyn Morrow) has traded in Wife Number One for (you guessed it) a younger model, a teen-singer newly renamed Feebee.

At college, the now vengeful trio were part of an inseparable foursome completed by fellow co-ed Cynthia (Victoria Matlock), but time and marriage have kept them apart for nearly twenty-five years. Then, Cynthia’s suicide reunites Annie, Brenda, and Elyse at their former chum’s funeral, and it’s as if the years had never kept them apart. A letter from Cynthia to the three survivors convinces them not to take their husbands’ betrayal lying down, and the trio hatch a plan to get back what’s theirs, and then some, abetted by Brenda’s gay friend Duane Ferguson (Tony nominee Sam Harris), who delightedly assumes the identity of “world renowned interior designer Duarto Ferghini,” phony Italian accent and all.

The First Wives Club’s three female stars are all genuine triple-threats at the top of their craft.  Ziemba so perfectly captures Annie’s sweetness and her overly self-effacing manner that it is a joy to see her finally let out her inner prizefighter. As Brenda, the terrific Walsh recalls her Tony award-nominated turn as Trina in Falsettos, both wives dealing with the death of a marriage they’d thought would last forever.  Divalicious Ralph is essentially playing a version of herself, and no one does Sheryl Lee Ralph better than the glamorous Miss Ralph. All three actresses create real, three-dimensional characters without ever imitating their screen counterparts, and each shows off powerhouse pipes, particularly Walsh in “My Heart Wants To Try One More Time” and Ralph in the show-stopping Act Two ballad “That Was Me Then, This Is Me Now,” a number sure to be included in the diva’s next nightclub act.

The husbands all do tip-top work as well—Dossett as the louse who can follow a romantic night of lovemaking with his wife with a sweetly uttered “I want a divorce,” muscular Morrow as the slick husband/manager of a superstar who manages to say with a straight face that their separation is a chance for the two of them to somehow grow closer, and Oscar as the lumpy appliance salesman turned flashy red-fright-wigged star of his store’s TV commercials. Statuesque, big-voiced Matlock makes the most of her limited (by suicide) stage time as Cynthia, and cute Kat Palardy is also very good (and funny) as Brenda’s lesbian daughter Chris.

The First Wives Club’s most memorable performances come from supporting players Harris and soon-to-be Broadway newcomer Sara Chase.  Harris, a star since his 1984 Star Search victory, is the perfect choice for Dwayne turned Duarto.  From the moment Dwayne dons fancy designer duds and a fake Italian accent peppered with whatever Italian words he’s learned from restaurant menus, Harris steals every scene he’s in, and brings the house down with his signature high notes in “A Man Like Me” and “Duarto’s Song.” Having only quickly perused the program’s Cast Of Characters before the performance, I did not realize until curtain call that one amazing comedienne (Chase) was portraying all three mistresses (sultry therapist Leslie, strident spokesmodel Shelley, and dumb bunny singer Feebee), giving the kind of performances that get at the very least a Tony nomination.

Songs for The First Wives Club are the creations of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland (better known as Holland-Dozier-Holland), who in 1963 started writing Top 10 hits for the Supremes, the Four Tops, and just about every other Motown star—while still in their early 20s.  The trio still have the magic touch, which can be heard in the seductive “Have Your Way With Me,” the joyously bouncy “Jump For Joy,” and the powerhouse ballad “One Sweet Moment,” featuring the voices of the three wives and their exes joined in glorious six-part harmony. I can hardly wait for a Cast Recording of show’s twenty new Holland-Dozier-Holland gems.

The First Wives Club somehow manages to be the kind of splashy, big cast musical that makes audiences feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth, yet never sacrifices the intimacy of its very personal storyline.  It’s also a great vehicle for its eight sensational ensemble performers (Michelle Aravena, Thursday Farrar, Bob Gaynor, Matthew LaBanca, Matlock, Palardy, Martin Samuel, and Richard E. Waits), giving each of them his or her own track of highly varied roles to portray, as well as assignments understudying the show’s leads.

Choreographer Lisa Stevens has sprinkled sparkly dance numbers throughout the evening, most notably in the Act Two nightclub opener “Jump For Joy.”  Ron Melrose does stellar triple duty as music director, vocal arranger, and composer of incidental music. John Gentry Tennyson conducts the nine-piece orchestra with panache.

Peter J. Davidson’s gorgeous scenic design with its sliding Plexiglas panels in front of a stylized New York skyline is the kind of set that only a Broadway designer on a Broadway budget can create.  Costumes by Paul Tazewell, lighting by Mark McCullough, and sound design by Jon Weston are equally topnotch. 

As a big fan of movie version of The First Wives Club, I’m delighted to report that its musical adaptation is an all-around crowd-pleaser, Rupert Holmes’ book retaining the film’s memorable moments (Shelley’s inability to say her one and only line in Morty’s latest TV commercial, the three first wives escaping from a penthouse apartment as window washers, Shelley bidding away Morty’s fortune at an auction of worthless knickknacks, etc.), while at the same time tweaking the plot just enough to make this musical a fresh delight. Married heterosexual males in the audience may squirm a teensy bit, but they, their wives and just about everyone else will likely have a ball at The First Wives Club.

Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
August 2, 2009
                                                                         Photos: Craig Schwartz

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