Chicago Theater Review: FIRST WIVES CLUB (Pre-Broadway World Premiere at the Oriental Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 12, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

ANOTHER SCHOOL FOR WIVES

It’s a huge reversal. For generations the sole route for a successful show was from Broadway to Hollywood–from musical to movie. For young theatergoers today that must seem a wrong-way turn: The smart transformation is screen to stage, the foregone familiarity of cinema blazing a trail for theater’s intimacy and third dimension. (Admittedly, jukebox musicals constitute a third genre, capitalizing on the much less centralized music industry.) Anyway, why take chances with new material when you can turn movie memories into boffo box office?

Carmen Cusack, Christine Sherrill and Faith Prince in FIRST WIVES CLUB.

The latest movie musicalization is the Broadway-bound confection First Wives Club, now on a month-long shake-down cruise in Chicago. Of course, with camera-to-curtain hopefuls you ask different questions than whether West Side Story is true to Shakespeare or Wicked to its source. The interest now is whether a 1996 revenge flick–where “training spouses” get discarded by callous partners for younger “trophy wives”–is still as fun as Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Stockard Channing and Bette Midler left it. Will these “first wives” (a club they never wanted to join) pull off a vendetta as delicious as anything in 9 to 5 (another movie makeover)? The critic, in effect, becomes a mixed-media commentator and unofficial “script doctor.” Is this movie mutation ready for the big time, the final crossing from palm trees to bright lights? Is a remake worth it?

Patrick Richwood, Morgan Weed and Sean Murphy Cullen in FIRST WIVES CLUB.

As is often the case, the answer to this second coming, forcefully helmed by Simon Phillips, is “Not yet”–admittedly a far better reaction than “Why this?” The mixed reviews that Robert Harling and Paul Rudnick’s script (based on Olivia Goldsmith’s novel) received almost two decades ago may well repeat themselves. No question, the perverse penchant of prosperous hubbies in mid-life crises to abandon the women who made them what they are (and took them for who they’re not) is a ripe target for tragedy as much as comedy. “Change is good,” the culprits contend, but, of course, that motto works both ways. Even without the star power of the original, Linda Bloodworth Thomason’s witty book holds its own. The serviceable songs, however, turn a comedy into a concert, which is not the same thing.

Faith Prince in FIRST WIVES CLUB.Again bosom buddies, 1969 graduates from Sarah Lawrence College, bond years later when a fourth friend, Cynthia (Michelle Duffy), commits suicide after getting screwed by a “pre-nuptial agreement” and dumped by her cad helpmate for a younger model. It’s not unlike the female bonding in Thomason’s Designing Women and HBO’s Sex in the City.

So, when their wandering mates stray into green pastures, these losing ladies give new meaning to “Payback’s a bitch.” Divorced, Mafia princess Brenda (a forever feisty Faith Prince) has been two-timed by ingrate, tax-dodger Morty (Sean Murphy Cullen), a refrigerator tyro who perpetrates a hilariously awful Superbowl commercial (“Morty is the Best”). She’s left financially struggling with a kid (Cameron Clifford) and his upcoming bar mitzvah. Brenda’s nemesis is ditzy mistress Shelley (Morgan Weed), a Jesus-freak homewrecker who records a hit song blaming the victim.

Christine Sherrill in FIRST WIVES CLUB.

Queen of cosmetic surgery, flamboyant Elise (Christine Sherrill) is a tippling movie actress; dropping her for a young starlet, her Bill (Mike McGowan) wants alimony and half their assets for teaching her everything he knows. Finally, advertising whiz Annie (Carmen Cusack), mother of sympathetic lesbian daughter Alex (Tara Macri) and very deficient in esteem (“Whirlpool of Emotions”), is double-crossed by her therapist (Lindsey Alley) who lives to “Stir It Up” and sleeps with Annie’s fickle Aaron (Gregg Edelman).

Faith Prince, Christine Sherrill and Carmen Cusack in FIRST WIVES CLUB.

Reunited at Cynthia’s funeral (“Shoulder to Shoulder”) in 1992, the jilted trio refuse to indulge in any pity parties as they cherish the Bulgari pearl necklaces that Cynthia gave them as keepsakes. No, they will practice “bitchcraft” and get even, not angry. Leveling the playing fields, they dig up dirt (financial and scandalous) on their philandering louses, employing a sting auction to fleece them royally and take over their businesses. They get help–and comic relief–from gay trickster Duane (Patrick Richwood), playing a flaming interior designer (“I Am Duarto!”). An inevitable catfight tests the first wives’ loyalties. For one couple the ending holds out hope for forgiveness. The first wives nonetheless establish a living memorial, the Cynthia Swann Griffin Crisis Center for Women–a pro-active awareness shelter to keep first wives first.

Sean Murphy Cullen, Morgan Weed and the cast of First Wives Club

Gabriela Tylesova’s sets and costumes are cinematic enough. The score–by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland–needs its borrowed standards like “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Reach Out…I’ll be There,” and “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” to give stature to the story. Above all, when First Wives Club, with its perfunctory choreography by David Connolly, hits Broadway, it better get a shorter, lighter second act: The revenge scenario, which feels like forever, forfeits fun.

Faith Prince, Carmen Cusack and Christine Sherrill in FIRST WIVES CLUB.

Almost arguing that the film was merriment enough, the songs slow down more than advance the action. The best moments remain what they’d be out of context–Prince’s anguished “My Heart Wants to Try One More Time” and Sherrill’s power ballad “Old Me New Me.” Happily judging from the Oriental Theatre opening night, it may not matter to female audiences if the musical exploits its subject or characters: Some stereotypes–like treacherous ex-grooms and grasping understudies–keep resurfacing to fuel new fires. The worry of becoming a future first wife is strong enough to draw a constant quorum. There’s no appetite for a Second Wives Club.

Carmen Cusack in FIRST WIVES CLUB.photos by DJ Pierce

First Wives Club
presented by Broadway in Chicago
Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
ends on March 29, 2015
for tickets, call (800) 775-2000
or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com
for more info, visit First Wives Club The Musical

for more info on Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Grace March 25, 2015 at 7:45 am

Just so you know —
“Brenda’s nemesis is ditzy mistress Shelley (Morgan Weed), a Jesus-freak homewrecker who records a hit song blaming the victim.”

Morgan Weed plays Shelley Salem – a salesgirl/actress.
Alison Woods plays Cassandra Clark – a Christian Country Western singer – who dates Elise’s (Christine Sherrill) husband Bill (Mike McGowan).

When reviewing a show – which this is more of a “summary” and certainly a spoiler – GET YOUR FACTS RIGHT (how embarrassing).

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