It seems like an iffy proposition at first: a musical spoof of 1970s disaster movies, using the soundtrack of that decade to fill out the score. Fortunately, Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick's Disaster!, now at St. Luke's Theatre after a 2012 run at the Triad, is far from its title. Yes, it could be shorter, but this otherwise enjoyably frenzied evening boasts a fiercely committed cast, sharp book, and songs that will get stuck in your head for days — if they haven't already been there for four decades.
A la The Poseidon Adventure, this "disaster movie musical" takes place on a ship and features what seems like a cast of thousands (but really only fourteen, still a lot of the minuscule stage of St. Luke's). Just as the '70s disaster movies had all-star casts (don't forget, Helen Hayes won an Academy Award for her role in Airport), this one features Rudetsky himself in the leading role, along with Broadway stalwarts like Mary Testa and John Treacy Egan among the ensemble.
Rudetsky, dressed in a beige suit and red turtleneck (period-specific costumes are by Brian Hemesath), plays Dr. Ted Scheider, a disaster expert who senses that a rumbling earthquake will disrupt the grand opening of Pier 54, a floating casino on the Hudson River. The barge is populated by a host of eccentric and daffy characters, including the tough-as-nails proprietor Tony (Eagan), a man whose cutting of corners spells the certain doom; a nun with a gambling problem (Jennifer Simard); a loving wife and devoted husband (Testa and Tom Riis Farrell); a journalist (Haven Burton) who runs into her cater-waiter former fiancé (Matt Farcher); and a down-on-her-luck singer (Charity Dawson) who has taken to charging people for photos. The various plot threads are tied together with Ted's quest to save everyone from (cue ominous music) certain death, the one problem being no one wants to listen.
As in all jukebox musicals, the songs are sledge-hammered into the plot and they don't always fit. Yet, these elements provide much of the comedy, since everything involved is presented with a knowing wink. You can't help but laugh when "Hot Stuff" becomes the "I Want" song for all the major characters (Ted's search for heat underground; two guys looking for action, etc.) And when two characters debate what time it really is, they launch into Chicago's "Twenty-Five or Six to Four." Of course, the pièce de résistance is the second-act post-earthquake fight song, "Sky High."
Could it be shorter? Sure. Too many songs come and go in a single verse, and they're not really necessary. Still, these numbers are delivered with pizzazz by the cast, a gleefully demented group of performers with infectious enthusiasm that carries beyond the footlights. It's impossible to single one out — they're all game to go over the top, and they fit with the show's style like a glove.
Most important, Disaster! accomplishes what it sets out to do: it's a fun parody of a genre that doesn't really get parodied in the realm of theater. For that alone, this one is worth checking out.