Josh Pais

The female empowerment tuner gains no fresh luster with "The First Wives Club."

The female empowerment tuner, lately represented by “Mamma Mia!,” “9 to 5″ and “Vanities,” gains no fresh luster with “The First Wives Club,” which slavishly follows the hit 1996 pic in every respect except the most important one: the emotional grounding to make us care about its titular trio. Constructed around vague hear-me-roar sentiments hammered out in generic Motown terms, this Old Globe tryout tuner is eyeing Gotham, but one is skeptical — to paraphrase Groucho — whether audiences will opt to join any club with these ladies as members.

Like the pic and Olivia Goldsmith’s original novel, the tuner presents three helpmates/ doormats traded in by the husbands they made successful in favor of newer, sleeker models. The suicide of a mutual college friend, another hapless castoff, galvanizes them into what personal-health bestsellers call “self-actualization,” particularly the determination to deal out some eye-for-an-eye justice to the cads who done ‘em wrong.

For all its clumsy tonal shifts from overbroad farce to maudlin sentiment (all retained in the musical), the movie cannily emphasizes the wives’ need to conquer their own demons before tackling their mates’ follies: Bette Midler’s Brenda retreats into overeating, Goldie Hawn’s Elise (spelled “Elyse” in this production) into booze and Diane Keaton’s Annie into paralyzed self-doubt. Only after some all-out brawling and hitting rock bottom do they genuinely bond, vowing to prove they’re just as capable and independent as their faithless fellas.

All this would make for a great first-act finale (“Now let’s go get ‘em!”), except librettist Rupert Holmes has crafted our heroines as one-dimensional victims who drift arbitrarily into their new lives while belting out peppy, generic anthems. (Most of the songs by Motown legends and tuner novices Holland-Dozier-Holland would’ve graced a ’60s Supremes album, but could be allotted to any of the wives interchangeably.) Act one currently sputters to a halt.

Karen Ziemba’s Annie is granted some texture (though, alas, few opportunities to dance) as “a recovering timid person,” but Barbara Walsh’s Brenda snaps off her snide quips with no anguish or fury behind them. Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Elyse — conceived as an aging pop diva, but not given a chance to let ‘er rip till act two — simply trots around looking smug, superior and untroubled.

There’s no chemistry among these club members, no logic to their transformation and thus no interest in their quest. They just hug like crazy as the tuner lurches from one outlandish sequence to another.

Mirth strategies include tediously retro gay stereotypes, Sam Harris overdoing his decorator turn (“Do I look like a man who’d get down on his knees?”) to pump life into the proceedings. The husbands, fit foils in both novel and movie, are portrayed as libidinous dolts. (The classy John Dossett in S&M leather is a sight to remember, but not fondly.)

Pic’s most unattractive feature, its stubborn class snobbery, is here intensified by having Sara Chase overplay all three trophy girls as a misogynist’s rogue’s gallery: the loudmouth bridge-and-tunnel parvenu (“I’d hug you but my thong broke”); the prim shrink who’s really a jezebel; and the talentless bimbette. It’s as if no one trusted the First Wives to win our hearts unless the show caricatured and humiliated everyone else.

Helmer Francesca Zambello seems to have served more as a traffic cop than a shaper of emotional highs and lows, expending energy on poorly executed slapstick and an elaborate bit involving a painter’s scaffold that wasn’t funny in the movie and is even less so now in its (literally) five seconds of stage time.

Peter J. Davison’s set, dominated by giant sliding panels resembling glass shower doors, combine with Mark McCullough’s lights to offer a mostly attractive pastel evocation of New York City. Paul Tazewell’s costumes pick up on the overall lampoon mode without especially flattering the wearers, and Lisa Stevens’ choreography is perfunctory at best. These characters have little need to celebrate in dance, anyway, as almost every word and lyric is already so aggressively self-congratulatory.

The First Wives Club

Old Globe, San Diego; 604 seats; $92 top

Production

An Old Globe presentation of a musical in two acts with book by Rupert Holmes. Music and lyrics by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. Directed by Francesca Zambello. Choreography, Lisa Stevens; music direction, vocal arrangements and incidental music, Ron Melrose.

Creative

Sets, Peter J. Davison; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Mark McCullough; sound, Jon Weston; orchestrations, Harold Wheeler; conductor, John Gentry Tennyson; stage manager, Kim Vernace. Opened July 31, 2009. Reviewed Aug. 2; runs through Aug. 30. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Brenda - Barbara Walsh Annie - Karen Ziemba Elyse - Sheryl Lee Ralph Morty - Brad Oscar Aaron - John Dossett Bill - Kevyn Morrow Leslie/Shelley/Feebee - Sara Chase Duane - Sam Harris
Musical Numbers: "Wedding Belles," "That'll Never Happen to Me," "Have Your Way With Me," "The Art of Loving a Woman," "A Man Like Me," "Have Your Way With Me" (Reprise), "The Need to Be Free," "Ready for a Change," "My Heart Wants to Try One More Time," "Jump for Joy," "I'm So Lucky," "Morty's Got It All," "Today He's a Man," "One Sweet Moment," "Duarto's Song," "Love for All Seasons," "That Was Me Then, This Is Me Now," "The Auction," "Jump for Joy" (Reprise), "We're So Lucky," "Finale -- Welcome to the Club."

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