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A CurtainUp DC Review
Pried away from the beach by their mothers, the young girls vow to write letters (remember letters?) to one another which they do. Three actresses of relevant ages play Bertie and Cee Cee as we follow their relationship from childhood to teenage to adulthood. Their friendship has its ups and downs, with times of elation and times of utter hatred and jealousy. But it lasts thirty plus years.
Originally a novel and then a film, and now the musical Beaches premiering at Signature Theatre. It runs down a checklist of the phases women go through as their lives progress and change.
As always at Signature, the musical elements are splendid. Director Eric Schaeffer has again put together an excellent ten-piece orchestra and selected actors whose voices are pitch perfect for their characters.
Heading the cast as Cee Cee is Alysha Umphress, a powerhouse of emotion and sharp-tongued sass with a considerable resemblance to Bette Midler, the movie's Cee Cee. Umphress has excellent comic timing as well as a very versatile and beautiful voice. She belts, she croons and her rendition of the ballad "The Wind Beneath My Wings" is as stirring as was the number when sung by Midler at this year's Oscars.
Bertie, Cee Cee's BFF (Best Friend Forever) is far more gentle and vulnerable. While Cee Cee's upbringing was at best crude, Bertie was brought up to believe that doing the right thing meant marrying a man who would make a good living, have a certain status in the community and to hell with the problem that he was boring. Mara Davi, familiar to watchers of the television series Smash, is everything Cee Cee is not. She's delicate, polite, naive (for a while). No wonder these opposites see life's choices differently but find each other's advice worth noting.
One of the evening's highlights, of which there are many, are the duets sung by Cee Cee and Bertie, particularly "This is the Life," "A Day at the Beach," and "God Gave You Me." No sniffles here but each song was very affecting.
John and Michael, the foils to these women, are also well cast as the men they marry. Cliff Samuels's Michael is suitably conservative in his dress and manner. The part of John, the show biz charmer, may be thankless in that as it is written it is a cliché but the good news is that Matt Scott, a truly talented performer , makes the most of his solos, "Ce-Celia," and "44th Street."
Beaches is very well cast and directed but where the show falters is in its script which includes such trite expressions as "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" Oh, puleeze.
Some judicious pruning is needed. The first act is highly repetitious and trite, making some of the scenes too long and somewhat boring. The second act, which has more action and less talk, moves faster, but not fast enough.
Derek McLane's set consists of piled up chairs, bureaus, and whatnots neither adds nor detracts. It is a neutral background against which costume designer Frank Labovitz and particularly choreographer Dan Knechtges use dated styles from the 1950's through the 1980's with its bell bottom trousers and disco dancers sliding across the floor.
Even though this world premiere of Beaches, the musical has its faults, the elements that are good are well worth the time.