By Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick
Directed by Jack Plotnick
Reviewed by David Roberts and Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited
The 1970s gave movie audiences a treasure trove of disaster films including “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Earthquake,” “The Swarm,” “Fire,” “S.O.S. Titanic,” and “Bees.” The careful observer might see the spirits of these (and other) disaster films in Seth Rudetsky’s and Jack Plotnick’s delectably smart and witty “Disaster!” currently running at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City. That is if the audience can stop laughing long enough to wonder whether Shelly Winters’ apparition might be swimming with the piranhas giving the jukebox musical pasquinade the royal thumbs up.
“Disaster!” begins with a worker falling to his death from his shaking construction platform while securing bolts on the Barracuda the new floating casino docked in Manhattan and ready for its auspicious opening night. The shaking is not related to construction on the West Side Highway. Professor Ted Scheider (Seth Rudetsky) claims the new ship is attached to a pier the contractor drilled directly into a fault line and the vibrations caused by the guests will trigger a deadly earthquake. Ted does all he can to convince guests not to board the Barracuda and sneaks on board to continue to encourage them to get off the ship immediately.
The creative team has assembled a stellar cast to portray the opening night guests, each with an engaging conflict that drives a hilarious plot supported by a songbook of 1970s hits that counterpoint the action in every scene. The characters include friends Chad (Adam Pascal) and Scott (Max Crumm) who are catering the event; Barracuda owner Tony (Roger Bart) who has cut corners in the construction of the ship, placing profit over safety; Marianne (Kerry Butler) Chad’s ex-fiancé who left him standing at the altar, eschewing marriage for a career in journalism; Sister Mary Downy (Jennifer Simard) the gambling addict turned nun; Shirley (Faith Prince) and Maury (Kevin Chamberlin) one suffering a terminal illness, the other pretending not to know; Jackie (Rachel York) a fading chanteuse hoping to marry Tony and traveling with twins Ben and Lisa (Baylee Littrell), and Levora (Lacretta Nicole) the diva past her prime but not her prowess.
The more these guests stomp around the ship’s casino, the closer they come to triggering the earthquake despite Ted’s repeated warnings. Their stories unravel as the ship begins to self-destruct and under Jack Plotnick’s splendid direction, the ensemble cast manages to engage the audience with their eccentric and campy conflicts. As much as the audience laughs at them and their foibles, each member of the audience recognizes something of themselves in these seemingly off-beat characters and the vicissitudes of their disparate lives.
What makes this wild, zany, over the top production viable is the incredible cast of seasoned professionals that are able to turn somewhat caricatures into believable characters, using endless opportunities to coax every ounce of humor from a line, song or situation. The vocal ability and comic timing of this group of fine actors, individually or together, is remarkable, keeping the audience intoxicated with laughter and pleasure. Their interpretations of these outlandish, eccentric personas are not only perfectly accentuated but are given a depth that creates a reality, relating on many different levels.
When Adam Pascal as Chad slides into his rendition of “Without You” (Peter Ham and John Evans) you hold onto your seat and just know you are in for a wonderful ride. You fall in love with Jennifer Simard as Sister Mary Downy instantly from the first notes of “Our Father” and her initial fall (literally) from grace. Her show stopping “Never Can Say Goodbye” (Clifton Davis) is an absolute tour de force. Another outstanding musical moment is “I Am Woman” (Helen Reddy and Ray Burton) given a powerhouse duet performance by Kerry Butler (Marianne) and Baylee Littrell who portrays twins Ben and Lisa with uncanny charm. These are just a few highlights but in truth there is not a musical number in this show that has fault. It is pure listening joy.
“Disaster!” is a delightful musical that knows what it is and celebrates that with inexorable joy. It is smart enough to be an incisive parody of a film genre and still know how to be a successful parody of itself. It is difficult to imagine “Disaster!” without its remarkable cast. Not one star or ensemble member is expendable. This is an impressive, near miraculous accomplishment and one not to be missed.