A theater geek's dream is coming true at the Nederlander Theatre, where an exceptional group of Broadway's best have assembled to star in Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick's new musical Disaster! The show's artwork puts an exclamation point after each name, and in every case it's well deserved. The chance to see the likes of Adam Pascal, Kerry Butler, Faith Prince, Roger Bart, and Rachel York tear it up to the disco hits of the 1970s — on a vessel that literally explodes around them — is a thoroughly delightful experience from start to finish.
Arriving at Broadway following runs at the Triad Theatre (2012) and off-Broadway's St. Luke's (2013-2014), Disaster! sends up the popular genre of 1970s disaster films. The setting is Manhattan's first floating casino and discotheque, where a group of lovable eccentrics have gathered to dance the night away, unaware that the barge has been constructed on a fault line, safety corners have been cut, and a series of impending natural disasters may spell their doom.
It's up to geological disaster expert Dr. Ted Scheider (Rudetsky) to save the day, but his pleas fall on mostly deaf ears. Tony (Bart), the ship's lascivious owner, has no interest in anything besides money and beautiful women. Marianne (Butler), a journalist whose career could be made by her reporting of the ship's defective planning, is also on Tony's trail, but is sidetracked when she discovers that Chad (Pascal), her former fiancé, is aboard as a cater-waiter.
The crowd of eccentrics also includes a nun with a gambling problem (Jennifer Simard); a newly retired husband and wife (Kevin Chamberlin and Prince), one of whom is harboring a deadly secret; an out-of-work disco diva (Lacretta Nicole); the ship's vampy singer (York); and her twin son and daughter (both played by Baylee Littrell). As they sing tunes like "Hot Stuff" and "Saturday Night," they're blissfully oblivious that certain death is minutes away.
With shades of The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and even Jaws, Disaster! is a gleefully silly experience that doesn't purport to be anything but. Though the show does run a bit long and some of the jokes are belabored to the point of exhaustion, it works surprisingly well precisely because it doesn't take itself seriously even for a second. When a passenger (Manoel Felciano) sings "Three Times a Lady" as he dumps his recently decapitated wife's body parts overboard one by one, it draws the belly laughs of the season.
Director Plotnick (who coauthored the book with Rudetsky) has assembled a thoroughly flawless ensemble of goofballs who understand the show's endearingly unapologetic ways of getting campy laughs. Pascal's sharp rock-n-roll voice magically sounds exactly as it did 20 years ago when he made his Broadway debut — at the same theater — in Rent. Hearing him bust out into tunes like "Sky High" and "Hot Stuff" supplies the audience with chills. Similarly, Butler sells her tunes to the rafters, delivering an "I Am Woman" that makes us want to stand up and cheer. She also gets to take part in one of the show's great running jokes: Her spot-on costumes, provided by the venerable William Ivey Long, get skimpier and skimpier as more and more disasters hit the barge. Pay attention for this truly hilarious sight gag in the second act.
Meanwhile, Bart delivers shtick with maniacally insane fervor. Prince is sidesplitting as a dying woman whose symptoms include Tourette's-like outbursts, pelvic thrusts, and winking eyes (the gag gets less funny each time, but man, does she sell it). York, channeling Ellen Greene and Ann-Margret, and the big-voiced Nicole, are hysterical as a pair of singers on opposite ends of the spectrum. Rudetsky makes for an astute straight man to the absurdity around him.
But the biggest highlight of all is the blissful Simard as Sister Mary Downy. Here is a truly inspired work of comic lunacy, with a deadpan that gives way to a tremendous explosion of lust for an inanimate object. Set to a mashup of "Torn Between Two Lovers" and "Never Can Say Goodbye," Simard dances a sexually charged dream ballet (JoAnn M. Hunter provides the delicious choreography) with the scene leaving us gasping for air. The biggest shame of the night is that she doesn't have much to do in the second act.
On the creative side, Tobin Ost provides a resourceful multilevel set that, with Jeff Croiter's lighting, goes a long way to evoke the cheapness of the '70s films the show inspired. Steve Marzullo leads a lively orchestra, while Joseph Joubert and Michael McElroy provide colorful musical and vocal arrangements.
With a title like Disaster!, Rudetsky and Plotnick are asking for it. But the mixture of a fabulous cast, winning self-effacement, and tunes we've been grooving to for 40 years lead to a perfect storm of enjoyment.
- Seth Rudetsky
- Kerry Butler
- Manoel Felciano
- Rachel York
- William Ivey Long
- Adam Pascal
- Faith Prince
- Michael McElroy
- Jack Plotnick
- Disaster! The Musical!
- Roger Bart
- Jennifer Simard
- Nederlander Theatre
- Joseph Joubert
- Kevin Chamberlin
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