'Disaster!': Theater Review

Disaster! Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel
Thank God for the nun.

An ensemble of Broadway stalwarts gets nostalgic for 1970s big-screen calamities and cheesy Top 40 period pop in this gag-laden musical parody.

In Disaster!, Jennifer Simard plays Sister Mary, a nun who entered the convent to escape her gambling addiction. Midway through the first act, she tries and fails to tear herself and the quarter burning a hole in her habit away from a gleaming new Hawaii Five-O slot machine as she belts out the Gloria Gaynor disco hit, "Never Can Say Goodbye." Because it's a great song and because the sublimely funny Simard goes from deadpan dourness to libidinous delirium as the fever overtakes her, the number is a riot. However, despite a game cast of Broadway pros, this campy spoof of 1970s screen schlockbusters too seldom matches those heights.

A goofy parody of plot points from Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, with side trips into Piranha, Willard and even Jaws, the show was a hit in two separate off-Broadway runs. Though why anyone thought it was a good idea to move it to primetime Broadway remains a mystery. Co-writer Seth Rudetsky, a radio host often called "the mayor of Broadway," clearly has a lot of talented friends, which explains why such an overqualified cast signed up to slum it in this patchy material. But surely one of them could have persuaded him to ditch the deadweight direction of co-writer Jack Plotnick and hire somebody capable?

This is one of those musical comedies in which everyone tends to stand around inertly as a gag gets played out or a song gets sung, except on the rare occasions when an excuse is contrived to clear everybody else off the stage. It's also the type of disposable send-up that can play like gangbusters in a scrappy dive theater with tacky sets, but looks cheap and desperate in a big house. Designer Tobin Ost's ugly work doesn't help on that front.

That's not to say it's without laughs. Like the Airplane! movie franchise that skewered Airport and its sequels, the jokes are fired off in such high density that many are bound to land, especially with these expert comedy performers in charge of delivery. And for those of us old enough to shudder with recognition at such AM radio felonies as "Muskrat Love," "Three Times a Lady" or "Do You Wanna Make Love," there are grisly pleasures in the way those songs — or more often, just a merciful few bars of them — are deployed, even if their contextualization within the slapdash narrative makes Mamma Mia! look like Ibsen. But casting Kerry Butler as a feminist career gal who has forsaken love for investigative reporting (cue "I Am Woman") is a reminder of how much more cleverly this kind of thing was done in Douglas Carter Beane's inspired reimagining of Xanadu, in which Butler played the Olivia Newton-John role.

Things get off to a semi-promising start when waiters Chad (Adam Pascal) and Scott (Max Crumm), natural disaster expert Prof. Ted Scheider (Rudetsky) and Tony Delvecchio (Roger Bart), the sleazy developer of the Barracuda, a floating casino and discotheque tethered to an unstable pier in New York’s Hudson River, all mine different meanings from "Hot Stuff." But mostly, the songs are lobbed in with literal blunt force, their inherent cheesiness becoming the gag to a degree that renders the genre parody secondary. A moment of existential crisis prompts "Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)." A flood of emotion: "Feelings." The reaffirmation of a loving commitment: "Still the One." A brief reprieve from danger: "All Right Now." A bromance death scene: "You're My Best Friend." An early-morning alarm: "25 or 6 to 4." A perilous balance-beam walk above a fiery pit: "Nadia's Theme," as in Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci.

That's actually one of the more inventive uses of a tune. But what becomes disappointingly apparent early on is that the creative team is more interested in mainstream-radio dumpster diving than in riffing on the kind of overblown Irwin Allen-produced pandemonium that sent stereotypes by the dozen to gruesome deaths.

It's opening night of Barracuda in 1979. Tony explains away persistent tremors as West Side Highway construction, ignoring the professor's warning that mass destruction is approaching via an imminent geological event. New York Times reporter Marianne (Butler) is chasing a lead on a story about Tony's reckless cost-cutting measures, which have made the floating pleasure palace unsafe. But guests flock in anyway.

Among them is faded disco diva Levora Verona (Lacretta Nicole, trying hard to freshen the stock musical figure of the big sassy sistah); guitar-strumming Sister Mary, struggling to heed her own warning ("Gambling is a sin. You're going to hell"); and long-married Queens couple Shirley and Maury Summers (Faith Prince and Kevin Chamberlin), who have sold the newsstand after 35 years and are looking to live a little. It's pretty obvious, even without their surname, that the latter two are stand-ins for the Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson characters in The Poseidon Adventure. Though in place of the big swim, Shirley gets to contribute by resurrecting her skills as a former high school tap-dancing champion. In one of the show's too-few ensemble numbers, she translates the instructions for opening a watertight door into Morse-code footwork to "A Fifth of Beethoven." (Elsewhere, choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter is the company's most underemployed member.)

There's also third-rate lounge singer Jackie (Rachel York, channeling Ginger from Gilligan's Island), waiting in vain for philandering Tony to propose and give her twins, Ben and Lisa, a father. The kids are both played in classic, cloying '70s screen-tyke mode by Backstreet Boy offspring Baylee Littrell, doing double-duty in a funny running gag. (No prizes for guessing which treacly pop ode Lisa sings to her injured brother.) And Chad is revealed to be an old flame of Marianne's, still pining years after she left him at the altar. That rekindled romance yields the big ballads, notably when original Rent alum Pascal, in strong voice, belts the pre-Mariah, Harry Nilsson version of "Without You" in the privacy of the restroom.

Mirroring the show's movie progenitors, the early action dawdles over rudimentary character intros before putting them through the physical wringer, first with a craptastic quake, which closes Act 1, and then with the series of tidal waves it triggers as they drift out to sea. There's mild amusement in the low-rent effects used to depict the capsizing casino ("Hell, Upside Down" was The Poseidon Adventure’s immortal tagline), or the deadly drop of a rogue chandelier. But such resourcefulness or specificity is rare. One of the best direct references has Marianne shredding her skirt to bandage Chad's bleeding arm. The shrinkage of her tattered costume, becoming increasingly slutty as the action gets more harrowing, is a delicious nod to the show's screen antecedents. (Kudos to costumer William Ivey Long, though why no tear-away skirt concealing matching hot pants?)

Overall, it's dispiriting to watch a gifted cast working above material that seldom amounts to more than hit-or-miss sketch fodder. Prince, God bless her, even manages to squeeze a few laughs out of the groaner of a terminal illness whose symptoms include obscene Tourette-type outbursts and uncontrollable pelvic spasms.

Recent lumbering Hollywood attempts to resuscitate the disaster genre (the Poseidon remake, San Andreas) suggested it was best left undisturbed in the annals of vintage screen trash. And because the original models themselves flirt so unwittingly with self-parody — just try watching Stella Stevens' brassy reformed hooker snarl about suppositories without cracking a smile — they make a lame target for mockery. Very little of the dumb dialogue here can hold a candle. Which means that the most momentous catastrophe Disaster! evokes is the likelihood of swift commercial death.

Venue: Nederlander Theatre, New York
Cast: Roger Bart, Kerry Butler, Kevin Chamberlin, Adam Pascal, Faith Prince, Rachel York, Seth Rudetsky, Jennifer Simard, Max Crumm, Baylee Littrell, Lacretta Nicole, Manoel Felciano, Casey Garvin, Travis Kent, Maggie McDowell, Olivia Phillip, Catherine Ricafort
Director: Jack Plotnick
Book: Seth Rudetsky, Jack Plotnick, based on a concept created by Rudetsky and Drew Geraci, with additional material by Geraci
Set designer: Tobin Ost
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Mark Menard
Fight directors: Rick Sordelet, Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Music director: Steve Marzullo
Choreographer: JoAnn M. Hunter
Presented by Robert Ahrens, Mickey Liddell/LD Entertainment, Hunter Arnold, James Wesley, Carl Daikeler, Burba Hayes, in association with Sandi Moran, Stephen CuUnjieng