You might think you’d want to join any club that would have Faith Prince, Christine Sherrill and Carmen Cusack as members. The three divine leads of the Broadway-aimed new musical First Wives Club, based on the 1992 novel by Olivia Goldsmith and the much-adored 1996 film, make a trio as unfairly talented and charismatic as those they echo from the movie (Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, respectively). But in its current incarnation, First Wives Club isn’t yet ready to accept your dues.
When Sherrill, Cusack and Prince share the stage, which is not often enough across this show’s two and a half hours, their timing and connections are terrific. (Turns out book writer Linda Bloodworth Thomason, the creator and showrunner of Designing Women, knows how to write snappy comic dialogue for groups of female friends.)
But in this comic revenge fantasy of old college friends who discover each of their husbands is cheating on them and team up to get payback, Bloodworth Thomason’s script too often keeps the women separated into sequential encounters with their spouses, kids, romantic rivals or gay friends (the latter in the form of Patrick Richwood as the hairdresser GBFF of Prince’s Brenda, who becomes an ally in the womens’ movement).
Worse, the songs by Motown legends Holland-Dozier-Holland are more interrupting than integrated. Whether they’re repurposed hits like “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Reach Out” and “My World Is Empty Without You” or new tunes, the musical numbers are largely inserted as reactions to something that happened a few minutes before rather than tools to move the action forward. The score is sorely lacking in true character songs; in fact, their deployment is so non-specific that each of the three women reach their relationship resolutions with successive retreads of the same song: “Old Me New Me (Parts 1, 2 and 3).”
Which brings us to the “You Don’t Own Me” problem. Maybe First Wives Club’s producers couldn’t obtain the rights to own the Lesley Gore tune that the ladies triumphantly sing at the movie’s climax. That’s fine, even if its absence might be a disappointment to fans of the film.
But the stage adaptation needs something equivalent to that iconic moment of the trio’s intimate, celebratory camaraderie. As of now, Bloodworth Thomason, Holland-Dozier-Holland and director Simon Phillips just sort of throw up their hands at the prospect of a proper ending, hopping from a hard-to-swallow reconciliation between Brenda and her husband to an incongruent song-and-dance finale and hoping we won’t notice. Cusack, Prince and Sherrill deserve a sturdier clubhouse than this.
Oriental Theatre. Music and lyrics by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. Book by Linda Bloodworth Thomason. Directed by Simon Phillips. With Faith Prince, Carmen Cusack, Christine Sherrill, Seán Murphy Cullen, Gregg Edelman, Mike McGowan, Patrick Richwood. Running time: 2hrs 35mins; one intermission.