The new production of “First Wives Club” that just opened at Chicago’s Oriental Theater marks the second attempt to launch a Broadway-bound musical version of Paramount’s 1996 revenge comedy. A new director and cast have come aboard after the show’s 2009 tryout in San Diego, and the book has been re-written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason of “Designing Women.” Meanwhile, songwriters Brian and Eddie Holland have reached back into their own famed Motown catalog to insert brief versions of “Stop in the Name of Love” and “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch).” The combination of ’90s sitcom zingers and ’60s Motown sound makes for an odd juxtaposition, and while the show bursts briefly into life in the second act, it’s primarily a piece of theatrical plastic.
Sometimes it’s hard to identify why a show doesn’t work, but this one has obvious flaws. Nobody would claim the film version’s a masterpiece, but it did offer a sincere expression of the characters’ emotional journey as a trio of highly-educated, middle-aged women came to realize the extent to which they had relied on their husbands for their identities, despite their own ideals of women’s independence. In the stage show, there’s no sense of internal surprise that they’ve let this happen to themselves, which leaves the three talented leads — Faith Prince, as the earthily sarcastic Brenda; Carmen Cusack as the sexually repressed and insecure Annie; and Christine Sherrill, as the successful singer with a diva persona, an alcohol problem, and over-puffed lips — with little to play other than static character traits and bouncy banter.
The songs should play the key role here, but instead they’re far too generic. Take “Whirlpool of Emotions,” the song Cusack (channeling Diane Keaton a bit too much) sings after dressing as a cheerleader to turn her husband on — only to be asked for a divorce immediately after sex. The song doesn’t express specific emotions, or even a swirl of confusion ending in despair; it’s just a whirlpool of feeling, going around and around with no direction. In general, the show’s music and lyrics are similarly vague, and the voices of the individual characters never emerge. Little ever happens during the songs; they’re almost all simply tacked on to the end of scenes.
The book, which has a plethora of amusing one-liners, far outshines the songs. It’s a shame, because Prince and Sherrill and Cusack all have comic and vocal chops, but those talents are never given an opportunity to shine. Their serious songs are oddly incongruent with their characters, and for the most part could be cut and paste into a different show.
Another hurdle for the show is that the production plays the end in the beginning, which can be blamed at least in part on director Simon Phillips. The men here are just plain pathetic from the start. Can’t we have some real smarm for the villains of our comedy, or perhaps a little ill-intention and genuine chauvinism? Instead we get a collection of straight-up suckers who are so easily manipulated that getting revenge on them feels uninteresting from the get-go.
Attention instead goes to the characters with the most personality, who turn out to be the mistresses. Morgan Weed, as the tasteless, talentless, vapid aspiring actress Shelley Salem, acts her scenes with delicious comic relish. It’s enough to make you think this show would be a whole lot more fun if it were about the second wives club.
And the only character who actually gets to steal the show is the tried and true stereotype of the gay hair stylist Duane, who gets to pretend to be the tried and true stereotype of the pompously pretentious interior designer to set the revenge schemes in motion. The show would have a real chance if it came up with several more numbers as entertainingly slapstick as “I am Duarto,” in which actor Patrick Richwood plays every glance at Shelley and Morty’s (Sean Murphy Cullen) pink fake-fur furniture as genuinely painful. Richwood even provides more depth to these stereotypes than the main characters get, showing Duane as a great pretender who gets absolutely exhausted by his efforts.
The other lively number comes soon after, in an auction scene where the three leads drive up Shelley’s bids on Elise’s treasures being sold for the divorce. The song, “Payback’s a Bitch,” is more snappy and repetitive than it is good, and the same is true of David Connolly’s choreography, but it’s lively, and the whole thing works because the song provides the forward momentum of the scene.
The show isn’t dull. There’s an admirable amount of pleasing harmonies, and the designs have polish and occasional kitsch. Fans of the movie will find some things to enjoy, mostly because they’ll bring with them memories of the character arcs the show itself ignores. Still, it seems unlikely that brand alone will suffice to carry this bland show forward.