Faith Prince. Those two words served as the motivation for me to visit this pre-Broadway tryout of The First Wives Club: The Musical. I consider Prince among the very best musical comedy stars -- right up there with Carol Channing and Judy Holliday. The Tony-winning actress is the sort of artist who can spin comedic gold out of tin -- and do so in a way that's both grounded and human.
And boy, does she earn her oats in this wobbly musical adaptation of the hit 1996 film, which is based on the 1992 novel by Olivia Goldsmith. Playing the heart-broken but bold and brassy Brenda (the Bette Midler role), Prince overcomes material that strangely wrings most of the glee from the original source material.
If anything, it made me respect her more.
But, dammit, much like her character, she deserves better.
On paper, this property sounds like a no-brainer musical comedy. There's heartbreak, revenge, humor and friendship. It's a story of self-discovery and bonding. Sisterhood and soul mates.
And in a time when Broadway is overcome by star-vehicles, sophomoric humor and jukebox revues, it's refreshing to encounter a show that features modern, independent, ADULT, women. And along with Prince, Christine Sherrill and Carmen Cusak -- both vibrant, exciting actresses with huge voices whom I've seen in other shows and been mighty impressed -- round out the trio.
It's a grand leading cast. You want to root for these women.
However, as adapted by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, you spend most of the first act watching these actresses suffer through their emotionally abusive relationships caused by philandering husbands (among them, Broadway stalwart Greg Edelman, who does the best he can with a thankless part). And just when you think the second act will finally result in the payoff we so sorely need, it's sidelined by a cat fight between the woman, lazily constructed comedic caricatures (including a vaguely offensive "gay best friend" trope) and a slap-dashed finale.
It should be mentioned that this is a show that's been in development for a while. A previous incarnation debuted at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in 2009. By many reports, it had Broadway hopes, too, but was put back on the shelf and re-tooled for this version. But what's onstage at the Oriental still seems very much like a work in progress.
There are moments where the show shines - most of them being non-sung scenes between the three women, which are too few and far between. Director Simon Phillips along with book writer Thomason might consider fleshing out these moments and sidelining all the unnecessary padding.
While the plot's inexplicably set in 1992 (if for no other reason than that's when Goldsmith's novel was set), designer Gabriela Tylesova runs with it, delivering some wonderfully over-the-top frocks for Sherrill (the Goldie Hawn role) to strut her stuff in, and peppering the stage with wonderfully tacky pop-art and Lucite furniture.
Finally, the music. The legendary trio of Brian Holland, Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier may have penned songs that defined the Motown era, but I'm not convinced it's the right sound for this musical. While powerfully delivered by Prince, Sherrill and Cusak, the toe-tappy, anthem-heavy score doesn't feel specific to these characters or their situation. And when the score does actually call for a no-holds-barred power-anthem finale, it backs away.
"The First Wives Club" plays through March 29 at the Oriental Theatre. (More information here.)
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