Review by Kathleen Campion
There’s a certain cringe-worthy factor at work at the Nederlander. Disaster! employs most of the histrionic ballads of the 1970s (“Feelings”? Really?) to underwrite some of the silliest plot points (heroic dying woman out-humbles gambling nun) accompanied by anachronistic dance sequences (repetitive disco moves). Disaster! is a perfect storm of spoof. And, like all spoofs, it only works if you get onboard and stay onboard, even when the ship upends.
Disaster! opens with a production number—“Hot Stuff”— that sets the scene on a glitzy new casino, built on a ship moored in the Hudson. Roger Bart plays Tony, the egomaniacal owner who’s paying off inspectors, harassing women, and generally behaving like a self-important ass in a synthetic suit. Tony’s relying on the success of this gambling venture to cover his bankruptcies elsewhere.
Since Disaster! has been produced here before (in 2012 and again in 2013) it may be that coverage of Donald Trump has now become so ubiquitous that I was seeing unintended slams to “The Donald” here. It may also be that Bart’s yahoo is a perennial we rename every so often.
One measure of a musical’s success is whether the audience exits humming the tunes. They do, with this one, though at Disaster!, it’s not a Sondheim event. These tunes—“I Am Woman,” and “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and, inevitably. “I Will Survive”— have been imprinted, perhaps painfully, on a good share of the public, who either lived through the 1970s or have visited that musical oeuvre in countless recapitulations in the decades since. (My guest was unfamiliar with much of the music, and that narrowed the eye-rolling fun quotient for her.)
Disaster! played to a packed house on Monday night perhaps owning to an upbeat New York Times review, but certainly assisted by the calendar: Putting up a rollicking new musical on a night when much of Broadway is dark makes mega marketing sense. The gang that filled the seats was enthusiastic. The woman next to me must have been a backer (you’ve sat next to her) every joke landed; every gag was art; every song, bliss. But she wasn’t alone—the place churned with enthusiasm. The people in the room had a great time.
While the writers slipped in lots of big and small moments for nearly everyone, there are three stand-out players in a cast of accomplished musical-comedy pros. Jennifer Simard, playing a conflicted nun (there’s always a nun in a disaster movie, right?) walks away with every scene they give her. She is quietly brilliant in a remarkably noisy show. After a while, she just stands there—funny. When she finally unpacks the voice she been mortifying …omg.
Broadway baby, Faith Prince, is, well—she’s Faith Prince. She owns the stage when she talking and even when she’s gagged. Prince can even disable her audience with a lash of fabric stuffed in her mouth. Where do they teach that?
Seth Rudetsky is a busy guy here. He’s a lead onstage and the show’s co-writer, and the music supervisor, and the song arranger. He plays Prof. Ted Scheider, the nerd-cake who predicts the disaster that upends the floating casino. He is a generous foil to the bumbling Tony (Roger Bart) a recovering lover to lounge singer Jackie (Rachel York), and ultimately the hero of our piece. He’s more writer than actor in the one sense that he wrote far more interesting ‘business’ for Simard and Prince than for his own character. Go figure. His Wikipedia page calls him “American musician, actor, writer, and radio host.…” I’d add dancer/quasi gymnast.
His co-writer, Jack Plotnick, also directs with a lively hand. He manages to insert two and three character vignettes that are especially rich between the production numbers.
There’s one kid (Baylee Littrell) in the show who plays two kids. For whatever reason, the audience the night I went was entranced with this one-trick-pony. Cute for a couple of scenes, I’m thinking, but tiresome after more. I bow to W.C. Fields on this one.
Disaster films rely on special effects while disaster spoofs rely on letting the audience in on the joke. Scenic designer Tobin Ost manages this tongue-in-cheek extravaganza with considerable wit. The costumes are spot-on, while music and lighting reliably pace and color the operation.
Bottom line – I had a good time. I knew the songs. I wore the clothes. I liked the silliness and the way, way overdrawn parodies. Cheesy? No question. Fun? Yep.
Disaster! – By Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick; directed by Jack Plotnick
WITH: Roger Bart (Tony), Kerry Butler (Marianne), Kevin Chamberlin(Maury), Adam Pascal (Chad), Faith Prince (Shirley), Rachel York (Jackie), Seth Rudetsky (Professor Ted Scheider), Jennifer Simard (Sister Mary Downy), Max Crumm (Scott), Lacretta Nicole (Levora), and Baylee Littrell (Ben/Lisa). Also Manoel Felciano. Paul Castree, Casey Garvin, Travis Kent, Alyse Alan Louis, Maggie McDowell, Olivia Phillip and Catherine Ricafort.
Designed by Tobin Ost, choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter, costumes from William Ivey Long and lighting design from Jeff Croiter. Mark Menard handles sound design, Charles Gordon is the music coordinator and Steve Marzullo the conductor. At the Nederlander theater, 208 W. 41st St., Manhattan, through July 3rd. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes with one intermission.