Based on Iris Rainer Dart's novel (which became part of the 1980s zeitgeist when it was adapted for the screen in 1988), Beaches the stage musical is now receiving its world premiere at Signature Theatre, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer. Beaches tells the story of aspiring singer and actress Cee Cee Bloom, whose brashness and un-Hollywood looks sometimes get in the way of her becoming a star, and her best friend, the well-heeled Bertie White. The two meet as young girls on the boardwalk of Atlantic City and New Jersey, and they come share a lifelong friendship that begins with a pen-pal relationship and later takes a life-altering turn.
The two friends come together again when Cee Cee is playing the shaggy dog in a regional production of Peter Pan, and Bertie, who runs away from her domineering mother and an unwanted marriage proposal, gets a job designing costumes for the production. Eventually, Bertie finds her way to Paris, and Cee Cee starts to make a name for herself in show biz, but the friendship doesn't wane — until a drunken celebration reveals secrets and a possible infidelity.
The positively radiant Alysha Umphress plays Cee Cee Bloom to perfection — brazen and loud one moment, vulnerable the next. Her singing voice is unforgettable, and her songs, from David Austin's dynamite original score, especially "The View From Up Here" and "Out There," won't leave your mind anytime soon.
Equally impressive is Mara Davi as Bertie White, a character that could have easily been overshadowed. Davi is a delight. She shines in the songs "Wait" and "A Bunch of Kids."
Of course, the story works because of the chemistry between the two leads. Whether singing together on the pleasing "Normal People," waxing poetic about men and memories, or simply sharing a walk on the beach, their connection is as true as any best friends can be.
The script finds great ways to utilize both childhood and teen versions of Cee Cee and Bertie, and the four actresses playing the younger versions of the characters are charming. Brooklyn Shuck and Presley Ryan as Little Bertie and Little Cee Cee, respectively, begin the tale. By the time both characters grow up, you're so invested in them as children that it's sad to see them leave the stage. The same feelings apply when Cee Cee and Bertie's teen incarnations, played by Maya Brettell and Gracie Jones, make their initial exit. In Act 2, Nina Johnson, playing Bertie's daughter, exhibits natural comic timing.
Not surprisingly, the men in the story get less attention, but Matthew Scott as theater director John is in fine voice and makes the most of his time onstage. Michael Bunce as gynecologist Arthur also shows a lot of heart.
Obviously, you can't do a musical of Beaches without including the one song with which everyone associates it — "The Wind Beneath My Wings" — regardless of how overplayed it was during its heyday. In a rather interesting choice by the writers, the song isn't used to advance plot or convey an emotional moment, but rather to test Cee Cee's vocals during a sound check. Umphress is understated in her delivery of the ballad, and rather than match Midler's intense belting (which she could do in spades), her soft, mellifluous approach illustrates the character's tremendous vulnerability. It's a lovely interpretation that further illuminates Umphress' star power.
Set designer Derek McLane makes attempts to contrast the economic differences between the two women by creating walls of old desks, tables, and furnishings that don't quite enhance either the stage space or the characters. Furthermore, a small projected image of the year the scene takes place is often lost among the backdrop. Still, the performers are so engaging that your eyes barely leave them.
Beaches is everything a winning musical should be, with great original songs, a touching story, and compelling, sympathetic characters. Add to this the sensational performances of Umphress and Davi and you have a show that Signature audiences will not soon forget. Hopefully this production will spread its wings for Broadway audiences as well.