Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Onstage, 'First Wives Club' is a Failed Marriage of Terrific Talents, as Well as Hollywood & Broadway -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

First Wives Club
a world premiere musical
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 29

I've never seen the movie The First Wives Club so I can't say if it seemed like a film likely to translate well to being a stage musical, let alone a stellar or even satisfying one.

But given the talent and pedigrees of those involved in the attempt, it's almost unfathomable how bad the result is.

And this--one of the worst new musicals in recent memory, perhaps since Ghost--comes after after an earlier iteration was developed, staged (in 2009 in San Diego), panned, gutted and resurrected with a new book writer and director.

The initial book writer of the musical, Rupert Holmes--not to be confused with the author of the book the movie was based on, Olivia Goldsmith--is a Tony winner and multiple nominee (and, yes, composer of "The Pina Colada Song"). The current book writer, Linda Bloodworth Thomason, created a highly-popular television show, Designing Women (which I've also never seen), and garnered several Emmy nominations for her script-writing skills.

Director Simon Phillips was behind turning Priscilla, Queen of the Desert into a fun phenomenon of a musical, and he took over for the much celebrated Francesca Zambello.

With its numerous producers seemingly aiming to take First Wives Club to Broadway, the world premiere cast in Chicago is first-rate, including Tony-winner Faith Prince as Brenda (the Bette Midler role in the movie).

Christine Sherrill, a fine actress/singer who I've long enjoyed on Chicago stages, is terrific as Elise, the Goldie Hawn part, and another strong vocalist, Carmen Cusack--who was great in Wicked, Sunday in the Park with George and South Pacific--makes for a fine ersatz Diane Keaton as Annie.

I also got a hoot out of seeing another Broadway veteran, Gregg Edelman--the pride of Skokie and my alma mater, Niles North High School--as Annie's husband, Aaron, while Sean Murphy Cullen is fun as Morty.

And the score of First Wives Club is by three of the greatest, most successful songwriters in music history, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland--commonly referred to as Holland-Dozier-Holland--who are responsible for many of Motown's greatest songs, including "You Can't Hurry Love," "You Keep Me Hangin' On," "Heat Wave," "Standing in the Shadows of Love" and dozens more. (Here's a link to Spotify playlist of some of their greatest hits.)

The musical incorporates a few HDH classic gems, most notably "Reach Out" (a.k.a. "I'll Be There"), as well as "Stop in the Name of Love," "Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Pie)" and "My World is Empty Without You."

But Dozier and the Holland brothers were also enlisted to write new songs for First Wives Club, including many much more in a "move the story along" Broadway vein than reminiscent of their Motown classics.

None of these electrified on a first hearing like the chestnuts of old, but most seemed more than tuneful enough and Prince, Sherrill and Cusack all shined on powerful solo numbers.

Given all these terrific, proven talents, most who seem to have done the best they could with what they had to work with, it is particular vexing to report that First Wives Club is by-and-large terrible.

I have all the regard in the world for how much time, money, effort, talent, tryouts, tinkering, reworking, etc., goes into making a successful musical, and some of my favorites--The Producers, Hairspray, Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde--have come from movies I hadn't seen or particularly loved prior to their stage adaptation.

Even musicals of Elf and Shrek and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels were more good than bad.

But with the caveat that good, even great, musicals can originate from any source material, First Wives Club--as with Ghost, 9-to-5 and Flashdance, among others--feels like an egregious attempt to cash in on a popular movie title without creating a reason for it to exist onstage.

It should be obvious by now, but some movies just don't need to be made into stage musicals. It's a different art form and while The First Wives Club appears to be mainly regarded as a mediocre--if quite successful--film, whatever merits it may have are likely best appreciated on screen.

I assume I was watching scenes from the movie re-created in live action--and I realize that this is what fans of the movie who paid up to $100 for prime seats at the Oriental may well want--but as a musical First Wives Club is completely devoid of the kind of theatrical pacing that engages you from beginning to end. (If you're planning to go, I suggest looking on HotTix or Goldstar for discount tickets, which should be readily available.)

It starts weirdly--albeit with the best, most classic music of the night--and goes downhill once a coffin hits the stage. Everything just feels disjointed.  

Although my friend Paolo and I may not have be the target demographic--although as Broadway in Chicago subscribers for 10+ years, I would argue we appreciate and embrace quality theater of any ilk--we were rather confused by the storyline in Act I and completely befuddled in Act II.

And though nearly 3 hours is way too long for a narrative conceit this slight--middle-aged women who plot convoluted revenge after their husbands have cheated on them--it isn't like I was expecting King Lear.

Meaning that I can't simply say the plot line is the problem.

In truth, I'm hard-pressed to specify what makes First Wives Club so disappointing.

The performances are good, the music is decent and in some cases superb, the scenery and costumes are more than sufficient.

But it just doesn't work.

I didn't care about anything that was happening in First Wives Club, rarely cracked a smile and couldn't wait for it to end. I have to assume just watching the movie would be better, or at least a lot cheaper, and I know simply hearing 2 hours of glorious Holland-Dozier-Holland hits would be far more pleasurable.

So rather than prattling on about what I particularly didn't like, let's just chalk it up to irreconcilable differences and move on with our lives.


Unknown said...

We loved it. Toe tapping great story and strong vocals. I totally recommend this show. This guy did not see the show we seen...

Anonymous said...

Hated it. Left after first act. No way this is A Broadway Caliber show.