Once I settled into my seat at The First Wives Club (now playing through August 30 at San Diego's Old Globe), I enjoyed watching new performers breathe life into the tale of three wives “of a certain age” who find themselves thrown over by their no-good spouses for younger models. With a script by Rupert Holmes and music and lyrics by the legendary HDH (Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, the trio responsible for “Stop! In the Name of Love”, “You Can’t Hurry Love”, and “How Sweet It Is”), you know that the musical will be different than the 1996 GLBT film fave.
Not surprisingly, Goldie Hawn’s aging actress Elyse is played by the gorgeous powerhouse Sheryl Lee Ralph, who can really wrap her pipes around HDH’s slightly retro-sounding score; while Karen Ziemba is adorable as Annie (the Diane Keaton role), Barbara Walsh seems a little tame as Brenda, and not only because she’s filling a role identified with Bette Midler.
The real star of the show, not counting gorgeous Kevyn Morrow’s abs (and silky voice), is Sara Chase, who is a revelation as not one, not two, but all three homewreckin’ hussies! How one woman can play icy gold-digger Shelley (Sarah Jessica Parker’s role), vapid Britney wannabe Feebee (the sublimely ridiculous Elizabeth Berkley), and unbridled sexologist Dr. Leslie Rosen (Marcia Gay Harden) is one of the true joys I’ve seen in the theater. I literally didn’t realize Chase played all three roles, until her comic clowning elicited identical applause at all three characters’ exits. With The First Wives Club a shoo-in for Broadway, Chase (now seen in Comedy Central’s Michael and Michael Have Issues) could earn an easy Tony nod.
The show introduces us to three college friends, now middle-aged married women supporting men who aren’t worthy of them. Their fourth friend, Cynthia, was a society wife who commits suicide at the open of the show after her husband leaves her. As each woman proclaims that that will never happen to them, they of course have to admit that it has. Brenda’s husband Morty, a "Crazy Eddie" type appliance huckster warmly played by Producers vet Brad Oscar, dumps her for a money-hungry model. Annie’s husband (John Dossett), she discovers, has been seeing their therapist, a confirmed hedonist, on a bed rather than a couch. Elyse is a music legend who has let her husband control her career, finances, and self-respect.
Later in the show, Ralph blows the roof off the Old Globe when she proclaims, “That was her then, and this is her now”. That kind of reinvention in the face of adversity is the message of the show, and the three leads do a wonderful job engaging the audience and making us root for their success. Walsh is given some ballads that show that she really loves the lug who done her wrong, and she sells them as well as she did when I saw her as the mother in Big: The Musical years ago. Ziemba, to my mind, is the heart of the show. She is such a generous personality, that she makes Annie a fully rounded character, which is not easy to do in a plot-heavy musical. She also plays a great PFLAG mother to her lesbian daughter. The music and book move the action at a good pace, and scenes like Morty’s Super Bowl commercial are hilarious.
Overall, you’ll find The First Wives Club an empowering night at the theater, full of an amazing array of Broadway caliber talent. It is easy to imagine that with some tightening and a bigger, more focused finale, The First Wives Club will do well when it hits Broadway.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.