Disaster is a campy spoof of 1970s disaster movies mashed up with well-sung snippets of dozens of 1970s pop hits in order to produce moments of hilarity. I counted at least seven such moments. The problem is sitting through the 100 or so minutes in between them.
When I saw an earlier production of this show, it felt like a goofy, overlong comedy skit put on by kids at a theater camp, but kids who were child prodigies with such frighteningly intricate knowledge of 70s disaster movies, and disco hits, and musical theater, that they would grow up to rule over Broadway.
This was just two years ago, however; it wasn’t at a summer camp but at St. Luke’s Theater Off-Broadway; and the people behind the show were adults already ruling Broadway, especially co-creator and cast member Seth Rudetsky (actor, musician, accompanist, arranger, radio host, writer and the nation’s leading musical theater deconstructionist.) I left the theater not so much bored or bothered as bewildered.
The surprising move to Broadway ups the personnel even further, with a new design team composed of Broadway royalty, such as six-time Tony Award winning costume designer William Ivey Long, and all but two of the cast members replaced, mostly by stellar Broadway regulars. Tony winner Roger Bart now plays the sleazy owner of the Barracuda, New York City’s first (and surely last) floating casino disco, opening on this night in 1979 docked on a pier among ominous signs of imminent disaster. Tony winner Faith Prince is the Shelly Winters character from The Poseidon Adventure although for some reason afflicted with a need to grind her hips and babble incoherently (I must have drifted off when they were explaining why she did this.) Tony nominee Adam Pascal is the heartsick waiter long ago jilted by the journalist played by Tony nominee Kerry Butler, who of course is also on the cruise – investigating the dangerous conditions of the Barracuda that make it vulnerable to imminent disaster.
The only holdovers from the earlier run are Rudetsky himself, portraying Ted the “noted disaster expert”– I will not touch this – who ominously fears imminent disaster; and Jennifer Simard, who is by far the stand-out in the cast as the deadpan guitar-playing Sister Mary who is guiltily drawn to the one-armed bandits.
The presence of so many deeply talented performers in “Disaster!” managed to turn a show for which I had few expectations into a disappointment. At one point, for example, Adam Pascal (the original Roger in “Rent”) was able to turn the cheesy hit “Feelings” (Feelings/Wo-o-o feelings/Wo wo wo feelings/again in my heart) into something close to beautiful music full of…feeling. But he was only given a few bars to sing, because the point of the songs is to coordinate the lyrics cleverly with the comic chaos.
It takes all the way until Act II for disaster finally to strike — not just an earthquake but a tacky tidal wave that capsizes the Barracuda (most of the special effects are deliberately tacky), as well as an attack by what I took to be plastic barracudas. The result is a lot of rushing around, and discombobulated, dirtied and moistened stars – which turns “Disaster!” into an unmitigated triumph for make-up designer Anne Ford-Coates.
At the Nederlander
Written by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick; Directed by Jack Plotnick
Scenic design by Tobin Ost, costume design by William Ivey Long, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter, sound design by Mark Menard, wig and hair design by Paul Huntley, Makeup Design by Anne Ford-Coates
Cast: Roger Bart, Kerry Butler, Kevin Chamberlin, Adam Pascal, Faith Prince, Rachel York, Seth Rudetsky, Jennifer Simard, Max Crumm and Lacretta Nicole; Also Manoel Felciano, Baylee Littrell, Paul Castree, Casey Garvin, Travis Kent, Alyse Alan Louis, Maggie McDowell, Olivia Phillip and Catherine Ricafort
Runtime: 2 hours and 15 minutes including an intermission.
Tickets: $65 to $129
“Disaster!” is scheduled to run through July 3, 2016
Update May 3: Disaster will now close on Sunday, May 8, 2016