New York City Theater
If you like silly shows, spoofs and self-reverential send-ups, that doesn’t mean you’re gonna like “Disaster,” the silly, spoofy, self-referential, middling Broadway musical that cruised into town. To be fair, some spectators at the evening caught guffawed at every gag and song cue.
The show, boasting a boatful of superb star comedians and wonderfully kitschy polyester costumes by William Ivey Long, is a skit dragged out to feature length, with some high spots but more lows than a cellar. Using jukebox hits from the 70s (“Hot Stuff,” “Feels So Good, “Without You,” “I Am Woman” and the like, which bring smiles of recognition to a knowing audience), the premise is a take-off on disaster flicks. Think “The Poseidon Adventure” with rubber-faced Faith Prince as the Shelley Winters kvetch.
Set in 1979, the plot takes place on the “Barracuda,” a ship outfitted for both gambling and disco. Floating in the Hudson River, the ship is not seaworthy so there’s hell to pay when an earthquake and a tidal wave turn it upside down.
The cast is rich with top-flight names. An oleaginous, mustachioed Roger Bart plays Tony, the ship’s owner, whose sometimes girlfriend is the dim Jackie (Rachel York, parodying herself as a two-bit lounge singer). Jackie has twin kids, Ben and Lisa, both played by a delicious Baylee Littrell who switches costumes and sexes with lightning speed.
Another thread concerns the studly Chad (the golden-voiced Adam Pascal) and Marianne (a game Kerry Butler as the girl reporter he left behind). Kevin Chamberlain is cherubic as Prince’s husband; Lacretta Nicole is jolly as a dog-loving, struggling actress; and, as an angst-ridded, doom-laden scientist, Broadway baby Seth Rudetsky, who co-wrote the show, holds his own.
Act Two is occupied with the struggle to escape the vessel. Dodging rubberized sharks, piranhas and rats, the passengers finally make their way to safety, leaving behind only poor, dead Prince, having succumbed to a disease that caused uncontrollable pelvis thrusts and a motor mouth.
“Disaster” had its debut off-Broadway, as did “Dames at Sea” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” two other transfers that were hits in small theaters and flopped in bigger ones. There’s a lesson here. What looks attractively naïve and cheap down in the Village can look just cheap uptown.
Co-written by director Jack Plotnick, with additional material by Drew Geraci, the evening has two numbers that may make even the somnolent sit up: To guide a couple trapped below deck, Prince taps out instructions in Morse code. As performed by Prince and choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter, the bit is filled with goofy infectiousness.
Also memorable is Jennifer Simard as the reformist Sister Mary Downey. Trying to resist her gambling addiction via the siren song of a slot machine, she sings “Torn Between Two Lovers” and “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Toting a “singing nun” guitar, Simard’s understated performance is a hoot.
Later, Simard and Prince have this exchange, which gives an idea of the rim-shot humor:
Simard: What did the doctor say?
Prince: That I have a few weeks left.
Simard: When did he say that?
Prince: A few weeks ago.
Perhaps the trouble is disaster films were themselves laughable, making, say, “Airport” more idiotic than its take-off, “Airplane.” The hit-and-miss “Disaster” might satisfy as a “Hot Stuff” appetizer. As a main dish, it’s lukewarm.
--David A. Rosenberg
March 19, 2016