Charismatic leads best thing about 'First Wives Club'
The pre-Broadway premiere of "First Wives Club," the musical based on the 1996 film and Olivia Goldsmith's chick-lit novel, owes a great deal to its superb leads: Faith Prince, Christine Sherrill and Carmen Cusack.
They star as former college friends, now middle-aged, who engineered their husbands' success, only to have the philandering jerks dump them for younger women.
Tony-winner Prince is sassy Brenda, whose husband, Morty (Sean Murphy Cullen), divorced her for social climber Shelley (scene-stealing Morgan Weed). Statuesque Sherrill plays self-absorbed pop star Elise, whose manager-husband, Bill (Mike McGowan), leaves her for jailbait Cassandra (Alison Woods). Cusack's insecure Annie is an advertising wiz whose coattail-riding husband, Aaron (Gregg Edelman), has an affair with their therapist Dr. Leslie (a scrumptiously unscrupulous Lindsey Alley).
The suicide of college chum and fellow first wife Cynthia (Michelle Duffy) reunites the women, who learn that none of them found happily-ever-after.
Determined to become the women they aspired to be (and pay back the men who wronged them), they concoct an incomprehensible revenge scheme aided by Brenda's gay friend Duane (Patrick Richwood), a Karl Lagerfeld look-alike whose interior designer masquerade makes for the show's liveliest moments.
The not-so-secret weapon in this so-so show is the formidable trio of Prince, Sherrill and Cusack, who are ready for Broadway. Unfortunately, that's not true of the show itself, actually a second incarnation of "First Wives Club." The first stalled in its 2009 San Diego debut.
The earlier version had a book by Rupert Holmes and music by celebrated Motown composer/lyricists Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. Holmes is gone but H-D-H remain. Their pop/R&B score pairs snippets of classics ("Reach Out I'll be There," "Stop in the Name of Love"), with well-crafted, albeit conventional songs, among them "My Heart Wants to Try One More Time," soulfully sung by Prince, and the confessional "Old Me New Me," a three-part number that soars on Sherrill's powerhouse vocals.
Holmes has a writing credit, as does director Simon Phillips. But the book is by TV writer/producer Linda Bloodworth Thomason ("Designing Women"), who knows snappy banter and wisely incorporates the movie's more biting retorts.
Three chefs ought to have cooked up something tastier, however. As it is, the writing is obvious and warmed-over. Supporting characters, especially the men, are one-dimensional and dull. Others -- like Cynthia, a ghostly presence in the first act -- disappear entirely in the second.
Phillips' directing is overly broad, but his flair for physical comedy is evident. And Gabriela Tylesova's glittery, couture costumes and posh interiors are delightful, although I still don't get the point of the inverted New York City skyline.
Ultimately, the show's firepower comes from its leads. Unfortunately, that may not be enough to conquer Broadway.
"First Wives Club"★ ★
Location: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, through March 29. No 7:30 p.m. show March 22 and 29
Running time: About two hours, 35 minutes, with intermission
Parking: Nearby pay parking garages and metered street parking
Rating: For teens and older; contains adult language and subject matter