By Erika Brown Thomas
The excitement is undeniable on a mid-March opening night, as a large crowd gathers outside Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, enjoying almost spring weather and witnessing red carpet arrivals to the highly anticipated world premiere of the Broadway-bound musical First Wives Club.
Linda Bloodworth Thomason (book), Duke Fakir (an original member of The Four Tops), Martha Reeves (“Martha Reeves and The Vandellas”) and perhaps most notably the trio of Motown composing legends, Brian Holland, Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier (music and lyrics) all make appearances. The electricity of this premiere grows as many VIP audience members are escorted to their seats, accompanied by glad-handing people apparently strongly invested in the evening going over well.
And then the performance begins.
The overall sound of the pit orchestra is a non-nostalgic disappointment. Most of the harmonic layers are supplied by “Keyboards 1, 2 and/or 3,” and while First Wives Club is not alone in this travesty, it is much harder to swallow when listening to these throwback charts. The brass and percussion sections, plus a solo reed player, do their best to recreate the energy and excitement of the top ten hits, “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” “My World Is Empty Without You,” “Reach Out,” “I’ll Be There” and several new songs for the show, but they never seem to completely click.
The cast of leading ladies is by far the most outstanding part of the show. To see a musical that has starring roles for women—with their male counterparts taking a significant backseat to their limelight—is refreshing and interesting to say the least. Unfortunately, the subject matter they discuss and sing about really only concerns their relationships before they got married to their selfish spouses, their selfish spouses, the mistresses of said selfish spouses and how to make them all pay. A summary of the plot may be read here, and the official musical website with cast, crew and production notes is here.
Faith Prince (Brenda) plays a believably bedraggled but persevering woman with great comedic timing for every single one of her well-placed one-liners. Her presence on stage is incredible as she demonstrates her ability to bring emotional depth to a character that could easily be played as “the one-dimensional shrew.”
Carmen Cusack (Annie) channels many moments of Diane Keaton’s memorable performance from the movie while adding her own twist of Southern-belle style. Cusack is vocally in-command of all her solos and makes the audience proud as she makes strides to come into herself as a woman on her own.
Christine Sherrill handles the funny (but frankly, unlikeable) character of Elise Acton with appropriate hilarity—a diva mostly without remorse for her harsh words. She exudes energy and vivacity every moment she is on stage.
Not to be forgotten is Michelle Duffy, who plays the fourth and final principle character, Cynthia Swann. Unfortunately, she spends all of her time on stage as either dead or getting ready to die. Her portrayal of the woman who, through her tragic death, is ultimately the catalyst for the theme of “what goes around comes around” is spot on.
This show needs to spend a little time in the editing room, with the first and most obvious cut given to the character of Jason Cushman, played by Cameron Clifford. In the playbill, his song “Remember Jerusalem,” already has been cut and his scene, while well played and endearing, adds nothing to the overall outcome or feel of the show.
The husbands and their younger lovers deliver fantastic performances of the caricatures, stereotypes and other drivel outlined for them. An exceptionally ironic moment occurs as Bill Acton, played by Mike McGowan, struts downstage front and center, clad only in a thigh-high silk robe and bikini underwear, with palatable and quite undeserved prowess and pride. This moment captures so much of the distorted and unfair visual perceptions society has for men and women—his wife, drop-dead gorgeous Elise Acton, has been told that she has reached her shelf life and yet here is her much less aesthetically pleasing counterpart, parading himself for laud and applause. How much more interesting it would be to see the audience reactions with their roles reversed.
Patrick Richwood plays Brenda’s gay best friend, Duane, in the same stereotypical way the husbands and young lovers are portrayed, though in this case, adorably. He is wonderful to watch as he finagles his way through various scenarios and schemes to help his friend, even if the jokes are old. His solo performance of “I Am Duarto” in part owes success to its very similar predecessor “I Am Adolpho” from the The Drowsy Chaperone.
Additionally, for as familial as Duarto and Adolpho seem, the ending of the show harkens an eery echo leading patrons to wonder if they’re watching, Dreamgirls: the White Women Version. From song homogeneity to correlating costumes and even relatively similar choreography, The First Wives Club is uncomfortable to watch, especially considering the racial events of this year and the lauded careers of the musicians and lyricists. The only thing that could have made it worse would be to see white men belting out the fact that “They’ll be There!” Perhaps it would have been better to stick with the film’s iconic finale of Leslie Gore’s Top Ten Single, “ You Don’t Own Me.”
Although the choreography certainly isn’t atypical of anything seen on the Broadway stage, David Connolly easily incorporates the style and feel of the show while reflecting the high quality standard for group numbers. His attention to detail and beauty is evident in all of the flashback sequences. The talented chorus shines particularly in the musical numbers, “Payback’s a Bitch,” and “Stir it Up Reprise.”
Gabriela Tylesova (scenic and costume designer) outdoes herself with incredibly large and fast moving set pieces that at times are directly metaphoric to the story, including a falling coffin.
While Chicagoland audiences sift through this new work’s problematic storyline and characters, here’s hope the high quality singing, acting, directing and design encourage other producers to “Reach Out” and showcase multiple female powerhouses.
“First Wives Club” runs through March 29 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago. Tickets are $33 – $100 and available at all Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, by phone at 800-775-2000, and online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com.