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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
This might sound like the beginning of a corny joke, and to an extent, it is. Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick's Disaster!, a musical inspired by the music and disaster films of the 1970s, is nothing but corny — from the opening number ("Hot Stuff," the lyrics of which refer to romance as much as the food on board the casino or the soil samples from under the pier indicating an impending earthquake) all the way through the finale ("Hooked on a Feeling," where the disaster's survivors are literally hooked onto a rescue helicopter).
From a distance, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that Disaster! won't offer much more than tired cliches and cheesy pop hits. That wouldn't even be completely incorrect. But thanks to an acute self-awareness on the part of the writers, a wonderful ensemble cast, and Mr. Plotnick's spot-on direction, it absolutely works. Disaster! knows exactly what it is, and it manages to use its potential cheesiness to incredibly comic effect, making it great fun to watch.
The musical actually has plenty to offer beyond a bunch of throwaway jokes and a nostalgia trip of songs. After meeting all the characters as they board the boat, we slowly learn more about their lives and their relationships to one another. Even though the characters all derive pretty strictly from movie archetypes, they are enlivened by being thrown together with one another. They're not exceptionally deep, but that doesn't mean you won't care.
One particularly compelling plot line involves the nun struggling with a gambling addiction (Jennifer Simard) and Shirley (Mary Testa), who is hiding her diagnosis with a Saturday Night Fever-esque disease from her husband (Tom Riis Farrell) so that they can enjoy the time they have left together. Simard and Testa are independently clear audience favorites throughout the show, but their interactions allowed for some compelling character work and even provides some genuinely emotional moments.
Such moments provide a nice bit of nuance amidst the torrents of jokes that come at you every second. Every potential source of humor is fully tapped. Classic songs are repurposed in unexpected ways, nearly every major 1970s disaster film receives a shout out (which makes for a lot of disasters in one show),and physical humor abounds.
Even the technical components do their part: Brian Hemesath's costumes are appropriately evocative, a sparse set by Josh Iacovelli has some tricks up its sleeve, and Emily Jackson's props adds some great bits with puppets and spare limbs.
Much of the humor derives from 1970s references, and the target demographic does seem to be an audience that has firsthand experience with the sources of these references. Nonetheless, even those born after the '70s — a category that includes this reviewer — can enjoy Disaster. Many of the songs are still considered classics, and the film allusions aren't particularly obscure. Even for someone with no familiarity with these films at all, the humor is still objectively funny without context, similar to the 1980 film Airplane! (which also draws on the disaster films of the '70s for comic inspiration).
The ensemble's energy and precise timing, assisted by Denis Jones' choreography, prove another valuable asset. A few highlights include Marianne (Haven Burton) singing "I Am Woman" alongside Lisa (one of two twins played by Jonah Verdon), with several perfectly timed transitions into "That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be"; the Sister's shimmy-filled delivery of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" to a slot machine; the rendition of "Knock on Wood" by Levora (Charity Dawson) that triggers the earthquake; and Shirley leading Ted (Rudetsky), Jackie (Michele Ragusa), and the ensemble in a tap dance to "Knock Three Times."
Simply put, the joy of Disaster! is seeing some incredibly talented performers act completely ridiculous in a delightfully over-the-top show. It's not Shakespeare, nor is it trying to be. This show knows exactly what it is, and it happens to be a lot of fun. Disaster? Anything but.