First Wives Club

REVENGE OF THE SPURNED: Barbara Walsh, left, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Karen Ziemba band together after their husbands jump into bed with younger girlfriends. (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times)

Everybody here? This afternoon's run-through of the new musical "The First Wives Club" -- based on the 1996 movie and Olivia Goldsmith's 1992 novel -- is about to begin in a rehearsal room at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre.

Everybody isn't. "Stop! Where is Karen?" demands director Francesca Zambello, referring to Broadway veteran Karen Ziemba, who portrays Annie, the perpetually apologetic "wife" played by Diane Keaton in the movie.

Continues Zambello dryly, "OK, things are going well . . ."

Anxious group scurrying ensues. From somewhere, Ziemba -- apologetically -- materializes to take her place alongside the other wives: Barbara Walsh, who plays doting Jewish mother Brenda (movie: Bette Midler) and former Broadway "Dreamgirl" Sheryl Lee Ralph, who is transforming Elyse, the character played by Goldie Hawn in the film, from an insecure blond actress into a glamorous black pop diva. (Ralph replaces Adriane Lenox, who dropped out of the cast for health reasons before rehearsals began.)

Also here is Rupert Holmes -- Tony Award winner for "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" and Tony nominee for the book for the Broadway musical "Curtains," which premiered at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2006 -- writer of the book for "First Wives Club." Holmes smiles and points to his neck. "If you see this vein in my neck at any point, you are probably seeing something in the show that you will never see again," he says pleasantly.

Everybody's here. Let the opening number, "Wedding Belles," begin.

At this point in the rehearsal period -- just over a week before the first preview performance -- it would be incorrect to say that Holmes wrote the book for "First Wives Club." Rather, Holmes is still writing the book. Just as the former Motown songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland remain in the middle of rewriting the music and lyrics they've been polishing for two years, and choreographer Lisa Stevens ("Disney's High School Musical 1 and 2" in London's West End and on tour; "Bombay Dreams") is working up a sweat crafting the energetic dance moves.

Even this close to unveiling "First Wives Club" to the public, the phrase "work in progress" remains an understatement for this Broadway-bound production getting its first outing at the Old Globe. The show opens Friday.

And right now, the vein in Holmes' neck is probably as good an indicator as any as to which way the creative wind is blowing.

Steady at the helm is Zambello, who is crossing out dialogue, moving things around, monitoring the emotional temperatures of the cast and pulling it all together. Although she remains deeply involved with opera, serving as artistic advisor to San Francisco Opera, where she is directing Wagner's "Ring" cycle, she has come to prefer directing more populist entertainment. Her last high-profile musical was Disney's "The Little Mermaid" on Broadway.

It'll be easier next time

While the rehearsal process for any production is essentially the same, the creation of a new musical has more moving parts than presenting a revival. "It's always easier to do the second production," jokes Old Globe artistic director Louis Spisto.

Spisto says the budget for the Old Globe production is about $2.5 million -- a fraction of what the show will cost to produce on Broadway, where budgets for musicals routinely pass the $10-million mark. Old Globe audiences will see a fully staged show, but with perhaps a slightly smaller ensemble and fewer musicians in the pit.

And although "First Wives Club" has a commercial future, the Old Globe is a nonprofit theater, so the performers trade lower-than-Broadway salaries for the chance to be part of something new. While the Old Globe does not share producer credit with Paul Lambert and Jonas Neilson -- the show is being presented by "special arrangement" with the Broadway producers -- the Old Globe will be a profit participant through the life of the Broadway production as well as major touring productions of the show, as the regional theater originating the show.

For those who missed the novel and movie, "First Wives Club" tells the story of three well-off, middle-aged New York City women whose perfect marriages crumble when their husbands indulge their midlife crises by hopping into bed with younger women. In the Old Globe production, all three of the girlfriends are played by the same actress, Sara Chase. The philandering husbands are portrayed by Brad Oscar, John Dossett and Kevyn Morrow.

Zambello won't get her most reliable input until the two weeks of previews that follow the five-week rehearsal period -- when the laughs, fidgets and silences of the audience begin to shape the show. Audience reaction, Zambello says, provides needed perspective after actors have heard the comic lines so often that they just don't seem funny anymore.

"You generally do a lot of work the day and afternoon before each preview," she says. "You generally can only work on one scene, or one dance . . . It's always a race against the clock."

The Old Globe has established something of a reputation for shepherding new musicals to Broadway: "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "The Full Monty," "A Catered Affair" and a revival of "Damn Yankees." Creating a new musical in temperate, beachy San Diego, say those involved, is like being at a summer camp -- a scary, vein-popping kind of summer camp that offers nonstop rehearsals instead of archery and crafts, and evenings of Shakespeare at the Old Globe's outdoor amphitheater instead of campfires and s'mores.

The process, Holmes says, is always easier away from the distractions of New York. He arrived from the Big Apple about midway through the rehearsal period after keeping in touch with choreographer and director via video conferencing "so I could see the expressions on their faces when they said: 'This scene needs to be shorter,' " Holmes says.