Star power: Broadway-bound ‘Death Becomes Her’ benefits from stellar leads

“Death Becomes Her” — 3 stars

Powerhouse leading ladies, an old-school score, bedazzled costumes, and awareness of what it is (and what it’s not) animate “Death Becomes Her,” the frothy albeit entertaining tuner premiering at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace.

Based on director Robert Zemeckis’ 1992 dark comedy starring Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as longtime frenemies determined to remain young and beautiful, the musical has already earned a Broadway transfer, with previews beginning in October in advance of a November opening.

No surprise there, given the enthusiasm that greeted this gleefully campy show at Sunday’s opening. Moreover, the show’s bona fides include co-stars and Broadway veterans Megan Hilty and Jennifer Simard, along with a Tony Award-winning creative team that includes director/choreographer Christopher Gattelli (“Newsies”), set designer Derek McLane (“Moulin Rouge”), costume designer Paul Tazewell (“Hamilton”), lighting designer Justin Townsend and sound designer Peter Hylenski. That’s a lot of star power.

Helen (Jennifer Simard), left, and Madeline (Megan Hilty) try to convince Ernest (Christopher Sieber) to take a potion offered by the mysterious Viola Van Horn (Michelle Williams) in the world premiere of “Death Becomes Her.” Courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman

At a time when Broadway musicals cost upward of $10 million to produce, “Death Becomes Her” makes obvious where investors’ money went. It’s there on stage for everyone to see. Tazewell’s glittery, body-baring, feather-accented, velvet-trimmed costumes would make Bob Mackie envious. Gattelli’s choreography is strong and sexy; the laughs are well-timed. McLane’s sets — from gothic manor (accented by Townsend’s moody lighting) to Hollywood mansion to luxurious New York City apartment — are properly opulent.

The Broadway-ready score by composer/lyricists Julia Mattison and Noel Carey’s score consists of big, bold tunes beautifully played by music director/conductor Ben Cohn’s 18-member orchestra. While musically uniform, the songs have wit. Case in point: the terrific “For the Gaze,” about the desire for attention that motivates aging actress and raging narcissist Madeline Ashton (Megan Hilty). But the tune has a double meaning, underscored by Madeline’s onstage transformations into gay icons Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland, which suggests she behaves as she does “for the gays.” Here, Mattison and Carey seem to tip their hats to the film’s cult status within the gay community. Clever that.

Similar wordplay is reflected in the funny book by Marco Pennette (“Mom”), which references Hollywood agents, classic films (“Sunset Boulevard” gets a shout out) and sex. For the record, this is a show for adults.

Essentially, it satirizes unattainable beauty standards and society’s unwillingness to tolerate aging bodies and diminishing looks, especially in women (a point crassly but effectively made by Pennette). Hilty’s Madeline is a fading star obsessed with her appearance. Simard’s equally insecure Helen is a struggling writer engaged to milquetoast cosmetic surgeon Ernest (Christopher). Realizing his surgical skills could prolong her career, Madeline seduces Ernest, who ditches Helen, who plots revenge.

The diva-licious Michelle Williams, center, plays Viola Van Horn in Broadway in Chicago’s Broadway-bound premiere of “Death Becomes Her.” Courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman, 2024

Ultimately, both women find their way to the mysterious Viola Van Horn (the diva-licious Michelle Williams) who’s accompanied by immortal minions played by a talented group of singer/dancers. Viola offers Madeline and Helen a potion promising eternal youth.

Tampering with the natural order — what could possibly go wrong?

Williams radiates seductive menace and looks glamorous (easily accomplished wearing Tazewell’s stunning creations), but there’s not much to her character. That’s one of the show’s problems: The characters lack depth. The actors do what they can. Sieber’s Ernest is an amiable nebbish. Josh Lamon is funny as Stefan, the toady responsible for stroking Madeline’s ego. Unfortunately, he disappears for most of the second act.

Madeline and Helen are also thinly drawn. Except for a fleeting reference to shared jealousy late in the show, there’s no back story and no explanation for the women’s mutual hostility, which begs the question: Why do they bother with each other if they hate each other?

The outsize talent Gattelli assembled — including the singer/dancers who play Viola’s immortal minions — makes up for the show’s shortcomings. Nowhere is that more evident than in the superb performances from Simard and Hilty.

Formidable vocalists in the tradition of Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole (who played cutthroat cosmetic titans Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden in Goodman Theatre’s “War Paint,” a musical that also addresses impossible beauty standards and the objectification of women), Hilty and Simard are also skilled comedians. They deserve characters they can sink their teeth into, characters with heft.

The premiere of “Death Becomes Her” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre features lush production values courtesy of set designer Derek McLane, lighting designer Justin Townsend and illusion designer Rob Lake. Courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman

That brings us to another problem with the show. As a satire, “Death Becomes Her” has no sting. Valuing women for their youth and beauty alone is a flaw worthy of skewering. And I would argue sharpening its teeth would make a better show. But I don’t think that’s what the creators intended.

I think they intended “Death Becomes Her” as a campy good time. And, in that respect, they succeeded.

Money well spent.

• • •

Location: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000, or

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through June 2

Running time: About 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission

Tickets: $30-$122

Parking: Paid lots nearby

Rating: For adults; includes mature subject matter, sexual content, adult language, some violence

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