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Broadway Reviews

Disaster!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 8, 2016

Disaster! by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick. Concept created by Seth Rudetsky and Drew Geraci. Additional material by Drew Geraci. Directed by Jack Plotnick. Choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter. Scenic design by Tobin Ost. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by Mark Menard. Wig and hair design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Anne Ford-Coates. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet, Christian Kelly-Sordelet. Music director by Steve Marzullo. Music coordinator by Charles Gordon. Musical arrangements and scoring by Joseph Joubert. Vocal arrangements by Michael McElroy. Dance arrangements by David Dabbon. Cast: Roger Bart, Kerry Butler, Kevin Chamberlin, Adam Pascal, Faith Prince, Rachel York, and Seth Rudetsky, Jennifer Simard, Max Crumm, Baylee Littrell, Lacretta Nicole, with Paul Castree, Manoel Felciano, Casey Garvin, Travis Kent, Alyse Alan Louis, Maggie McDowell, Olivia Phillip, Catherine Ricafort.
Theatre: Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours, including one intermission
Tickets: Ticketmaster


Adam Pascal and Kerry Butler
Photo by Jeremy Daniel Photography

Remember Airplane!? The 1980 Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker film didn't just ignite the careers of its trio of creators or launch Leslie Nielsen into a second career as a deadpan comic par excellence, it changed Hollywood. By reorienting comedy, yes, with innumerable industry-shaking jokes, most of which were so simple it seemed they couldn't possibly have been new ("Don't call me Shirley" is the classic, but I've always preferred "drinking problem"), or been jokes at all. But also by vivisecting the 1970s disaster movie genre, which counted such entries as Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake, revealing them to be paper-thin and absurd, instantly dated statements of the malaise and corrosive uncertainty that gripped America during a transformational era in its history.

It's for the same reason that Airplane! succeeded that the new musical at the Nederlander, Disaster!, fails on every level. It's not just that this show by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick (who also directs) spoofs all the same targets, though it does, or that it does so via the intrinsic laziness of a pre-fab jukebox-style "score" of the era's rock-disco hits. It also reveals, apparently unintentionally, the limits of Broadway's magic and tolerance for this assault on its house form.

It's at this point that I should admit I quite enjoyed Disaster! when it premiered Off-Broadway in 2013. Not because it was original (as we've established, it's not) or particularly well written (the second act, which endlessly piles calamity on top of calamity, tries way too hard), but because it had spunk and cleverness enough to fill a tiny space and enough intelligence to know when to demand your imagination fill in the gaps. A show that pretends "Hot Stuff" is a killer opening number, referring simultaneously to sexual conquests, steaming hors d'oeuvres, and geothermal activity presaging devastating tremors should be smart enough to know its particular nonsense ain't gonna fly outside a 200-seat black box. And, indeed, the original Disaster! traded on its relative lack of sets, costumes, and special effects, all but confessing that its unworkable concept was a big part of the joke.

Alas, that necessary mindset has been abandoned for Broadway and replaced by a physical production that looks both too cheap and too expensive—a tacky, Titanic-like unit set by Tobin Ost, glitzy-garish costumes by William Ivey Long, lights by Jeff Croiter—and suggests you're actually supposed to take everything seriously. No no no no no. A goof of this sort has to have a center, whether it's a point of view (The Producers), a method of presentation (The 39 Steps), or a killer flair and a willingness to do anything for a gag (Xanadu). If you expect the premise to carry the evening without new songs, brilliant staging and choreography, or legendary performances, that premise has to be flawless. And this one isn't.


Faith Prince, Kevin Chamberlin,
and Kerry Butler
Photo by Jeremy Daniel Photography

For the record, the idea is that a gambling impresario has built a ship-shaped casino that he's attached to a dock on the Hudson River to skirt tax laws. But at the ritzy opening-night celebration, things get out of hand, and the casino becomes 20 different kinds of death trap that the patrons, who embody every conceivable type from young men on the make (Adam Pascal and Max Crumm) to an old Jewish couple (Faith Prince and Kevin Chamberlin) to a reporter bent on exposing the expediency all around her (Kerry Butler) to an abused nightclub singer (Rachel York) and her twin children (both played by Baylee Littrell), must survive until sun-up. All while the owner (Roger Bart) and a scientist who's detected the implicit danger (Rudetsky) wage a battle of wills.

Are most of these people fine theatrical comedians? Absolutely. But because you don't (and can't) care about the characters they're playing, their skills are for naught. What makes Prince and Chamberlin first-tier pros, for example, is their ability to fuse silliness with humanity, but there's not even a pretense of the latter here for them to grab on to, especially since neither exactly projects a tangible nonstop-complaining AK persona. (Prince's wig, designed by Paul Huntley, is a horrific attempt to make her fit another factory's mold.) And there's no better musical-parody actress than Butler (a veteran of some of its better recent titles, including Bat Boy and Xanadu), who amplifies everyday neuroticism to dizzying levels of wackiness, but her she's crammed, uncomfortably and bizarrely, into a plain romantic role. And Pascal is a rock actor (Rent or Aida, anyone?), not a suave, lady-killing naif (and, at 44, looks and sounds too mature to play one at any rate). Even York and Bart, who should be ideal in their parts, can't get a single laugh between them, because they're straining to play levels that don't exist.

Combine this with microscopic sight gags that evaporate in big house (piranha hand puppets, Littrell's constantly running back and forth to swap between gendered costumes); creaky song spotting (Butler's reporter singing "I Am Woman" smacks of desperation, Prince and Chamberlin can't smooth over the stylistic disjoint of their ancient marrieds singing the peppy "Still the One," "Sky High" is eye-rollingly obvious as a relationship/ship blow-up number); JoAnn M. Hunter's unremarkable Atlantic City floor-show choreography; Plotnick's listless direction; and Rudetsky's wooden and humor-free turn in what ought to be the surefire Roy Schieder straight-man role, and you have a show that, at this scale, must be endured rather than enjoyed.

There is one enormous exception, though: Jennifer Simard (like Rudetsky, returning from the Off-Broadway run). Playing a nun, Sister Mary, with a guitar and a Dark Secret who unwittingly finds herself in a den of sin and temptation, she electrifies everything she touches. Marvel at the way Sister Mary crumples into a puddle at the merest brush of her shoulder, or howl at the unworthy soullessness of her voice every time she speaks her Savior's name. Or, better yet, stand and cheer at the erotic codependent bond she forms with her greatest weakness: the new Hawaii Five-O-themed TX-420 slot machine.

Her late-first-act encounter with it is so astounding over-the-top in its intimately sexual commitment that this one-armed-bandit is mere milliseconds away from stealing your own heart as well—or would be, if you could stop laughing long enough to let it. It's a lark, yes, of the most frivolous kind, but it's also a glorious intersection of scene, song, and singer that hints at how great Disaster! could have been on Broadway had its creators never held back. There's not a second Simard is onstage that you're not grateful that, despite exerting no obvious effort, she stops the show so thoroughly. Too bad she's also the only one who can start it.




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