Karen Ziemba, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Barbara Walsh
in The First Wives Club
(© Craig Schwartz)
Karen Ziemba, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Barbara Walsh
in The First Wives Club
(© Craig Schwartz)
Whether The First Wives Club, the screen-to-stage musical now getting its world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, becomes another Producers or another 9 to 5 is hard to tell, but it's definitely a real audience pleaser. Director Francesca Zambello's production certainly flows smoothly, aided immensely by a top-notch cast and design team. Still, the total experience doesn't fulfill its potential, due to a less-than-ideal book and score.

This female empowerment tale of three scorned wives, based on Olivia Goldsmith's novel and the subsequent hit film, focuses on three old friends: Annie (Karen Ziemba), who was a whiz in the ad world until she became an apologetic wife to Aaron (John Dossett); Brenda (Barbara Walsh), who was the brains behind the empire of electronics kingpin Mad Man Morty (Brad Oscar) until his midlife crisis landed him in the arms of a gold digger, and Elyse (Sheryl Lee Ralph), who went from the top of her college class to the top of the pop charts, who reunite at the funeral of their divorced and abandoned pal Cynthia (an impressive Victoria Matlock).

In some ways, book writer Rupert Holmes has actually improved on the original material (and the film's screenplay), adding some nifty one-liners to the script; but he hasn't been able to flesh out the characters and they remain cartoonish. Worse, the score, by legendary Motown composers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, isn't very successful at establishing character or moving the plot, and the lyrics are often forgettable.

On the plus side, the opening number "Wedding Belles" gets the show off to a rousing start and covers a lot of ground, taking our four sorority sisters from graduation through marriage to impending divorce over a 23-year period. While the second act ballad, "One Sweet Moment," is a haunting refrain on love and marriage, it should come much earlier than the second act. And other than Elyse's eleven o'clock number, "That Was Me Then, This Is Me Now," the wives don't really have much to sell musically. Meanwhile, two of the biggest numbers in the show, "A Man Like Me" and "Duarto's Song," belong to Sam Harris (who really sells them) in the role of faux interior decorator Duane.

Walsh is a real trouper, but it's difficult to buy her Brenda as a frumpy Jewish housewife, no matter how poorly costume designer Paul Tazewell tries to dress her down. And Brenda's constantly vacillating plotline is wearing. Ziemba's Annie just seems to possess too much of a backbone, no matter how many times she's forced to say "I'm sorry." For her part, Ralph gets her character's pop diva attitude totally right, but Elyse doesn't seem to have a weak spot, except maybe misplaced loyalty in her business manager and ex-husband Bill (Kevyn Morrow).

Meanwhile, one comic invention that particularly works here is the casting of Sara Chase as all three of the husband's mistresses (screeching model, controlling therapist, and talent-free singer). The quick-changing Chase makes the most of her number, "I'm So Lucky," with her three men.

Lisa Stevens' choreography is lively and inventive, especially in the second act opener "Jump For Joy." Ron Melrose's musical direction and vocal arrangements sound great, but are way too loud at times and often drown out the singers. But that's a minor problem; whether the creators can make the characters more believable and the show a more heartfelt experience is a bigger issue -- and one they might want to consider tackling before taking the show to the next level.