SAN DIEGO— Have you noticed that southern California has become the new Boston? It used to be that Boston was the place where new plays opened before moving on in triumph to Broadway. Or not. Now it seems that new plays---or at least new musicals---most often begin their runs here on the left coast. Take, for example, the pizzazzy, high-energy musical based on Olivia Goldsmith’s successful book The First Wives Club that opened this week at San Diego’s prestigious Old Globe Theater.
The musical has impeccable credentials. Adapted from Paul Rudnick’s 1996 screenplay for the movie of the same name, the musical was written by the much-acclaimed Rupert Holmes (Curtains, The Mystery of Edwin Drood), with music and lyrics by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, who wrote 1960s Motown hits for The Supremes, The Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye, among others. The main problem is, however, that this musical is too much of a good thing. Even Rudnick himself felt that the final screenplay was “incomprehensible” and, as he commented to the New York Times, “To figure out the structure of that movie would require an undiscovered Rosetta Stone." And, unfortunately, Holmes’ script follows Rudnick’s screenplay to the letter, and there is no Rosetta Stone in sight.
For one thing, the story of four erstwhile college roommates whose husbands dump them for younger women could be told more effectively in two hours, rather than three. And while the funeral of one of them provides a motive for their reuniting, and for the actions that follow, the fourth dumpee is really an extraneous character and could easily be dumped from the production altogether.
Further, the three women are so busy singing (some songs are fine, but many are lamentably ordinary), or kvetching (see Karen Ziemba as the terminally timid Annie), that you never get to know them, much less care for or empathize with them. They spend so much time feeling sorry for themselves, so much time before getting angry, and so much time seeking “empowerment” and change, that the first act ends before they get to the crux of the plot: revenge. So by intermission you still have no idea where they’re going.
The second act begins with more of the same: the men cavorting with their new women, the wives gamely (and lamely) attempting to live it up at a nightclub. It isn’t until the middle of the second act that the women embark on their convoluted acts of revenge. And the plans proceed with such intemperate speed that you really do need a Rosetta Stone to keep track of what’s going on. It feels as though the revenge motif, instead of being the culmination of the plot, was thrown in almost as an afterthought. (“We’ve got to go somewhere with this script…”)
If writer Holmes and director Francesca Zambello decide to rework this production, several of the actors should definitely go to Broadway with the show. Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays Elyse, a beginning-to-fade singer, is a rock ‘em, sock ‘em songstress who carries much of the show. Barbara Walsh, who plays Brenda, the Sicilian/Jewish housewife whose husband brings his inappropriately dressed floozy to his son’s bar mitzvah, is also a spirited member of the Club. Sara Chase, who plays all three floozies (with different wigs and costumes), accomplishes what it took Sarah Jessica Parker, Marcia Gay Harden, and Elizabeth Berkley to do in the movie. And Sam Harris as a flamboyant interior decorator who figures in one of the revenge plots, appropriately chews up the scenery as well as the furniture.
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There are some really wonderful numbers in the show as well. The opening number, in which the four roommates graduate from college and embark hopefully on their marriages, gets the musical off to a rousing start. Another number, where the husbands fade slowly into the background as the wives come into their own, is beautiful, melancholy, and moving, while Elyse’s solo, “That Was Me Then, This Is Me Now,” is a powerful anthem to the process of change. And a scene at an auction house is cleverly staged and lots of fun.
Of course, where there’s music, there’s dancing. In this case, lots of it. Choreographer Lisa Stevens has provided some lively dances, but not much of it is very inventive. What this show really needs is a Bob Fosse/Michael Bennett kind of choreographer, but unfortunately, guys like that don’t come along very often.
Scenic designer Peter J. Davison has done well with a fairly static set. Its backdrop of screens opens to reveal the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in various lights and moods, and in several cameos the staging is set off-center in an effective diamond shape. He is aided in this by Mark McCullough’s ever-changing lighting design. And Paul Tazewell dresses the cast in outfits that successfully illustrate their personalities.
In trying to cut this potentially exciting show down to a sittable two hours, there are several characters that are unnecessary, even though they were present in the movie version. For example, does Annie really need a lesbian daughter who adds very little to the plot? And does Brenda really need a Mafia Uncle Carmine? And certainly the long, boring song and dance in the glitzy dress shop could be cut without leaving a sequin behind.
All in all, however, despite my reservations about this production, a musical of The First Wives Club is a marvelous idea, and with a little editing and beefing up it should be a major hit in New York. As it already is in San Diego, with the Old Globe Theater sold out for the entire run, including its current extension to August 30th.