In the early 70s, producer/director Irwin Allen of TV’s “Lost in Space” fame released back to back star studded megahits The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, and before one could call S.O.S., a genre, the disaster film, was born. Not to be outdone, every studio clamored to capitalize on the Master of Disaster’s success, which resulted in a decade of films of varied quality such as Earthquake, Airport, The China Syndrome, The Swarm, Piranha, and the culmination of them all, Jaws. Allen perfected the recipe, which started with a selection of big named stars and old character actors dragged out of retirement, saturating them with with various soap opera laden back stories, added a few predicating unethical to amoral choices, and mixed it all up in the presence of a natural disaster, after which we played a primitive form of Survivor to see who lived and who succumbed to the titular crisis, usually featuring a prominent song intended for airplay and Oscar consideration. Forty years later, Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick have skewered every one of these cliches perfectly and set them afloat on their own dubious course in the musical parody Disaster!, currently in previews at the Nederlander Theatre after a successful off-Broadway run (with a title that almost encourages the wrath of the hateful NY Times critics)
Starting with the obvious Poseidon Adventure (with a splash of Thank God It’s Friday) setting aboard the Barracuda, a floating casino/discotheque, Broadway aficionado Rudetsky does double duty and simultaneously sends up the genre along with the conventional jukebox musical in the process, utilizing a score courtesy of K-Tel Records comprised of the best (and the worst!) of 70s top 40. The more than game requisite all-star cast includes some of the brightest contemporary theatrical stars on board. Adam Pascal (Rent, Aida) plays the ubiquitous swinging bachelor who, along with best buddy Max Crumm (Grease) are staff waiters looking for some “Hot Stuff”. Roger Bart (The Producers, Young Frankenstein) lends his trademark snark to a dubious proprietor who cut corners and paid off inspectors to get his casino afloat on schedule and under budget, a la Richard Chamberlain in The Towering Inferno. Kerry Butler (Hairspray, Xanadu, Catch Me If You Can) is an upstart career girl news reporter (think Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome) trying to make a name for herself in a man’s medium by busting Bart’s impropriety to a feminist theme of her own (“I Am Woman”), as well as sharing a past with fellow passenger Pascal. Populating the maiden voyage are Shelly Winters and Jack Albertson stand-ins Faith Prince (Guys & Dolls, The Little Mermaid) and Kevin Chamberlin (Seussical) as sweet old Jewish lovebirds celebrating their anniversary and sharing their secret to a successful marriage (“Still the One”); Lacretta Nicole as a faded Gloria Gaynor wannabe desperately trying to get her next big hit played at the disco (as Donna Summer campaigned for “Last Dance” in Thank God It’s Friday); Rachel York (City of Angels, Victor/Victoria, The Scarlet Pimpernel), equal parts Carol Lynley in Poseidon and Maureen McGovern in Inferno, as the definitive 70s bimbo lounge singer (kicking the party off with “Saturday Night”) with twin son and daughter (who suffers from Linda Blair’s diabetic complications from Airport ’75) in tow, a dual role played to unusual child actor perfection by young Baylee Littrell (yes, son of Backstreet Boy heartthrob Brian); Rudetsky himself as a seismologist straight out of Earthquake warning the voyage not take place; and breakout star/scene stealer supreme Jennifer Simard (the lone carryover from the off-Broadway production) as a young Helen Reddy-esque (Airport ’75) guitar–toting nun trying to simultaneously save souls and fight a dark inner demon—and yes, they even wove in as her theme the unlikeliest top 40 hit ever, Sr. Janet Mead’s The Lord’s Prayer (you had to be there in the 70s to understand…).
In a feat worthy of Allen himself, director Plotnick coordinates over the top but ultimately winning performances out of his entire cast of pros, and in the process manages to form an unusually balanced ensemble piece that yet offers equal opportunity to chew the scenery. Bart gets the usual mileage out of his stock sleazy villain, while Prince nails the cheap laughs when her character suffers a bout of Tourette’s-like verbal explosions (but nails the laughs regardless). Pascal and Butler are engaging as exes struggling to get right back to where they started from via the tragedy, and don’t disappoint with their expected pop vocal power. Rudetsky indulges his inner theatre buff and even gets to show off his impressive enough tap skills in a showdown with veteran Prince. York injects adrenaline with every appearance, whether leading a production number, commanding a solo, or displaying her sublime comic timing, all the while looking amazing in the ever-decreasing beaded gown in which she starts the pre-rescue evening. It truly boggles this critic how, in her third decade of a successful enough career, Miss York is not a full fledged Broadway superstar. In a world where Bernadette Peters gains musical acclaim as an actress, Patti LuPone is a legend as a singer, and Idina Menzel gets raves for basically being Idina Menzel, Rachel York is one of the very few dependable triple threats (a quadruple threat if you will, considering she’s a rare top caliber singer/dancer/actress, and still looks better than most while doing it all). But the revelations in this top notch cast are young Littrell who deftly bounces back and forth as brother and sister in the same scene, sometimes even in the same chorus, and Simard’s neurotic nun with a past, who slyly walks off with every scene in which she appears amidst a stage full of veterans.
Rudetsky and Plotkin also mill laughs in their score selection, which parodies the standard critique of every jukebox musical. Not only does it employ the best of the 70s gold (“Knock On Wood”,“Never Can Say Goodbye”, “When Will I Be Loved”), but deliberately dares to elicit cringes from the absolute worst of the decade also (including the Captain & Tennille’s baffling “Muskrat Love” and Morris Albert’s earache-inducing saccharine schmaltz “Feelings”). As far as their book, it is admittedly uneven and at times tries too hard. The first act is continuous fun as it sets up the multi-layered stories and offers more complete and satisfying musical numbers. But when the combined earthquake/tidal wave/cheap construction issues hit simultaneously at the end of the first act, the second act rescue portion forces many conventions and rapid fire movie references so fast that it’s sometimes dizzying, and the musical numbers become reduced to mere snippets. (In some cases, like the aforementioned “Muskrat Love”, that is not a liability.) Regardless, the through the roof (bottom of the boat?) talent of the ensemble cast makes it all great silly fun in the best spoof of the genre since Airplane! The only thing missing from the show to make it all come full circle is the inexplicable omission of Maureen McGovern’s Academy Award winning “The Morning After” (from Disaster!‘s granddaddy, The Poseidon Adventure) as part of the finale. This critic’s recommendation: check for your nearest exit, run (don’t walk) to the Nederlander, and strap yourself in for a dangerously funny evening of nostalgia.
Book by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick
Music by Various Artists
Previews from February 9, 2016
Opens March 8, 2016
208 West 41st Street
New York, New York