Volume 3, Number XXX
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 4-5, 2009


PRODUCTION NUMBER—Barbara Walsh (left) as Brenda, Sheryl Lee Ralph as Elyse and Karen Ziemba as Annie in the world
premiere of The First Wives Club, a new musical, running through Aug. 30 at The Old Globe. Photo by Craig Schwartz

First Wives Club Broadway bound? Not so fast

By Carol Davis

SAN DIEGO—No question, First Wives Club- A New Musical the world premiere show that opened recently at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park is worth a look-see. It’s spunky, funny, beautifully cast with production values spilling out all over the place and has lots going for it. That said, it’s not quite ready for prime time.

The well touted and eagerly anticipated musical with lyrics and music by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland with book by Rupert Holmes and directed by Francesca Zambello is in dire need of a cohesive and ‘we really should care more about these folks lives ’ story line.

Based on the best selling 1992 novel by Olivia Goldsmith and movie of the same name starring Dianne Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn --and adding music, dancing and other accoutrements-- it traces the good times, bad times and perils of three women: one a Catholic, one a Jewish-Italian and the other African-American (a detour from the book and movie) from the time that they meet and graduate from Sarah Lawrence College (with budding careers) in the ‘60’s to the time they get married and divorced to when they feel whole again.

All of this is predicated on their respective husbands being in mid-life crises and winding up leaving them for younger more hip or sexy women, in some cases bimbos who make them act, feel and do things like a gaggle of babbling idiots. 

The women find each other twenty or so years later at the funeral of another of their best friends Cynthia, (Victoria Mattlock) who commits suicide because her husband divorced her for a younger woman and she saw no other way out. After they hook up again and they discover that they are all in the same boat, they make a pact to keep in touch, not to hurt themselves but stand by and support each other and ultimately help destroy the jerks who left them. Ergo The First Wives Club is formed.

Predictably their lives intertwine and become almost dependent on each other as they try to heal and rebuild their self esteem, (as director Zambello put it at a recent press function). After being jilted, their plot looks and feels more and more like a revenge, gotcha and that ‘felt good’ fest than anything else. By the time however that the convoluted story leads to the ruin of their ex-husbands, we assume that everyone lives happily ever after.  

The lineup of talent in this show is unparalleled. All three women, Barbara Walsh (Brenda), Karen Ziemba (Annie) and Sheryl Lee Ralph (Elyse) are top notch, bona fide Broadway talents.  Walsh is the Jewish/Italian wife with a twelve and a half year old son who is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. In a brief interview with her weeks before the show she told me that she is not Jewish but years ago played the Jewish mother role in the Lapine/Finn musical Falsettos (which was also seen at the Globe) in which she had a Bar Mitzvah aged son as well.

Karen Ziemba, also seen at the Globe recently in John Guere’s Six Degrees of Separation, plays the Catholic wife of a successful businessman Aaron (John Dossett). Her character is always apologizing for everything and to anyone whom she thinks she has, may have or might in the future, offend. She is the recovering apologizer. Both she and Walsh are picture perfect as the injured wives. Sheryl Lee Ralph is Elyse (original Dreamgirl), an already successful, hot pop star and recording

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artist who marries for love and gives complete control of her entire career to her husband. Ooops, big mistake. Her character adds dimension and updates the story line; and she’s got the voice and, boy, does she belt out a song. The good news is that she’s a bit savvier and outspoken than her classmates.

The three husbands are more than credible, but made to look like the biggest lugs in town. Brad Oscar is Morty, Barbara’s appliance dealership husband who is gaga over a little sex partner; John Dossett is Aaron, Annie’s advertising agency owner and callous husband who is having an affair with Annie’s therapist. Kevyn Morrow is Bill, the wannabe record broker, husband of Elyse who is courting a new talent to take the place of his breadwinner, Elyse. He wants Elyse to play nursemaid to her.

All three are talented and excel musically as the errant exes. Standing in as the girlfriends, Sara Chas, with the help of quick costume and wig changes (Paul Tazewell), distinguishes herself early on with a new look for each. The costumes do make the characters and Tazwell’s changes work. 

Added to the mix is Aaron and Annie’s, “and don’t tell Daddy, I want to tell him when the time is right. Like Father’s Day or Christmas” lesbian daughter Chris (Kat Palardy) and Sam Harris as the wives' gay friend, Duane. When the production is snailing along in its own mire, it’s Sam to the rescue. He’s an absolute scene-stealer and adds miles of talent and fun to all the scenes he’s in as well as to the big production numbers. The Bar Mitzvah boys are Austin Myers and Ari Lerner. They alternate nights. Opening night we had the pleasure of seeing Myers, who was just fine.

With everyone having a chance to do his or her individual number center stage, there are about sixteen or seventeen musical numbers with some fine production numbers that include the entire cast as well. Lisa Steven’s choreography is energetic, entertaining and extremely upbeat. Mark McCullough’s lighting design is a little too bright at times but works well overall.

Ron Melrose’s’ musical direction, vocal arrangements and incidental music keep the pace lively with the help of the ten musicians in the pit. It puts the Globe, again, in a perfect setting for a musical gala. Peter J. Davidson’s sets are eye catching as translucent panels slide, open and close and different scenery and locations in the background framed in geometric patterns with soft eye pleasing and muted tones emerge. Each of the couple’s homes is distinguished by their personalities and design while Davidson’s arrangements fit them to a tee.

Cutesy dialogue and fast and cutting wise cracking repartee, a handsome cast with catchy and bouncy (“Jump for Joy”) musical numbers and an enthusiastic audience to appreciate extreme talent and hard work, do not always a successful Broadway show make.  At some point, we have to care about the characters on stage; have some empathy for them and what happens to them beyond what we saw on opening night to make this show soar. Promising? Yes. But more character development is seriously needed.

Check it out for yourselves. First Wives Club continues through Aug. 30th. For more information visit www.theoldglobe.org.

See you at the theatre.

Davis is a freelance writer based in San Diego. She may be contacted at davisc@sandiegojewishworld.com

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