As the titular trio of BFFs link arms and pinky-swear throughout the production of Broadway in Chicago's Broadway-bound First Wives Club: The Musical at the Oriental Theatre, they strive to send a message about the awesomeness of girlfriends and hear-me-roar female empowerment. But that message is severely undermined in the new musical inspired by a 1996 movie that was based on a novel by Olivia Goldsmith.
The story follows three 40something women who have been best friends since college and are unceremoniously dumped by husbands that take up with voluptuous, brainless 20somethings. Chart-topping pop star Elise (Christine Sherrill) loses her man (and the recording empire she's created with him) to a bubbleheaded born-again country-singer starlet. Advertising whiz Annie (Carmen Cusack) loses her husband and her income when her spouse takes up with the couple's bouncy sex therapist. Brenda (Faith Prince) is ousted by a ditzy piece of eye candy with dreams of becoming a rich socialite worthy of a style article in a glossy magazine.
After a lot of tears, the gals come up with a scheme to ruin their philandering exes. Just how that scheme actually works is something the musical leaves largely unexplained. While no one expects realism from musical comedies, a sliver of plausibility is needed to hang a narrative on. That need goes unmet in First Wives Club.
The musical doesn't just suffer from a case of misogyny played for laughs. It also paints every female character under 30 as an awful human being. So much for women empowering women. While parts of the score (music and lyrics are by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland) are gorgeous, the music and the dialogue (book by Linda Bloodworth Thomason) don't play well together. The story comes to a dead halt every time the singing starts. Moreover, the score's incorporation of snippets from classic pop songs is a frustrating tease. Every time the cast launches into the first few measures of the Supremes' "Reach Out…I'll Be There," you expect a barn-burning cover, but the full song never materializes, leaving the audience distracted from the narrative and yearning for a powerhouse anthem that never shows up.
The pacing throughout is sluggish, especially in the meandering first act, which breaks for intermission at an underwhelming moment that provides little impetus to return for the second half.
Director Simon Phillips has a talented cast, but the ensemble can't transcend the flawed material. Sherrill has a belt that soars, but she's undermined by campy, over-the-top garishness. Cusack finds the comedy in a reserved, buttoned-up woman determined to win back a spouse who likes his women packaged in teeny-weeny cheerleading outfits. Prince is the strongest presence onstage, an acid-tongued realist whose ruminations on waxing, weight, bad haircuts, and an aging pelvic floor are at once hilarious and wince-inducing in their accuracy. As for the other women, they're woefully underwritten stereotypes. Screechy social climber Shelley (Morgan Weed) is the embodiment of bad dumb-blonde jokes. "Bride of Jesus" and country crooner Cassandra (Alison Woods) is an insufferable twit with the depth of a kiddie pool. Overheated therapist Dr. Leslie Rosen (Lindsey Alley) is all brainless mugging, slapstick. and crude, obvious sex jokes that sound like rejects from the American Pie movies. Moreover, Anne's reaction when catching the good doctor in a career-ending ethical breach makes no sense whatsoever. Instead of doing the obvious and alerting the state medical board, Annie — who has been presented as an extremely intelligent woman — suddenly becomes inexplicably, completely stupid. Instead of turning Dr. Rosen in, Annie heads for the Häagen-Dazs.
Midway through that groaningly clichéd scene of sad women burying their faces in ice cream, First Wives Club moves from the realm of subpar sitcom to a revenge comedy. If you're confused by the payback, you're not alone. During the first-act-ending "Shoulder to Shoulder," one of the women excitedly exclaims that she doesn't understand the revenge plan, but she likes it anyway. The first half of that line is certainly understandable, even if the second half is not.
First Wives Club: The Musical sets out to celebrate the strength and smarts of sisterhood and solidarity. But the show doesn't even pass the Bechdel test. In the end, it has all the staying power of bargain-basement lipstick.