BWW Reviews: BEACHES - World Premiere Musical Shines at the Signature Theatre
Signature Theatre's Artisistic Director Eric Schaeffer must have envisioned his dream of having a theater and presenting new work. His dream is alive and well. BEACHES is the 42nd world premiere in Signature's 24-season history and their 18th world premiere musical.
When Iris Rainer Dart decided to turn her hit novel and successful film BEACHES into a musical she knew where to go with it. After collaberating with her long-time friend and fellow writer Thom Thomas on the book of the musical, she turned to young composer David Austin for the music (Dart wrote the lyrics). The threesome pitched their work to Schaeffer in 2012 due to Signature's reputation for developing new musicals. Signature agreed to hold a workshop in 2013. The result is entertaining audiences so well, the musical has already been extended until March 30, 2014. Even TIME magazine touted BEACHES as one of the "10 Reasons for Theater Lovers to Leave New York in 2014". They were prescient.
Many may recall the 1988 film starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey that featured the hit song "The Wind Beneath My Wings". While it was rumored that the musical would not include this number but the team thankfully changed its mind.
The story follows the friendship between two young girls, Cee Cee and Bertie, who first meet on a beach in Atlantic City in 1951 and follows their relationship until 1982 when tragedy strikes. Thanks to terrific casting by Telsey Casting, we are treated to three generations. The inititial Cee Cee is played by the precocious Presley Ryan who opens the show with her incredible talent and personality. You can only imagine her in GYPSY singing "Let Me Entertain You". Little Bertie is played by Sveas Johnson who likewise is incredibly talented. They then morph into teenagers played by Gracie Jones and Maya Brettell.
Then, the incomporable Broadway veterans Alysha Umphress and Mara Davi take over the evening with their incredible performances. Umphress has that "it" factor, filled with charisma and powerful voice while Davi's Bertie shines.
How do two individuals as different as could be become friends? Cee Cee plays the Jewish actress from the Bronx, Davi is the gentile from Pittsburgh who hopes to be a designer. But they hit it off and we follow their relationship from pen-pals, to roomates to rivals yet their friendship somehow survives. And that is the theme espoused by the playwright. Dart mentions in the program how important it is to have and keep your friends. Her message hits home. She states, "I think the reason BEACHES affects people is because when our time comes, all of us would want to be able to exit laughing with our best friend besides us."
When you combine a good story, a superb cast, a talented ensemble of dancers who add tremendous excitement and are sorely underutilized (great choreography by Dan Knechtge), and great music you have a success.
I truly loved the music and there is much of it...more than 20 numbers and almost all are terrific except for the last ballad in Act I "Wait" sung by Bertie which should be replaced. But there are a plethora of fine numbers starting with "What a Star" sung at the beginning by Ryan. There are plenty of clever duets like "Normal People", a superb ballad "God Gave You Me" by Umphress, an exciting disco number "I'm All I Need", and a song sung by all three Cee Cees and Berties called "My Perfect Wedding" which the audience loved.
Umphress' solo of "The Wing Beneath My Wings" is done strictly with a piano accompaniment and she nails it. You could hear a pin drop in the theater before the rousing applause. What a coincidence that Bette Midler performed the number during the recent Academy Awards telecast following the memorial to actors who have passed away.
The remainder of the cast performs admirably, Michael Bunce, Helen Hedman, Dan Manning, Donna Migliaccio, Cliff Samuels, Matthew Scott, and Bayla Whitten. The talented ensemble includes Jamie Eacker, Davis Hasty, Ryah Nixon, and Robbie Roy (also Dance Captain).
There's one more young talent who shines and that is Gracie Jones playing Bertie's daughter Nina.
I disliked the huge set made of bleached items found in homes like desks, baby carriages, lamps and tables designed by Derek McLane. I would have preferred projections to help show where the action was taking place.
The costumes by Frank Labovitz were colorful, the lighting by Chris Lee was spot on, and Lane Elms did a great job with the sound.
Special kudos to Music Director/Conductor Gabriel Mangiante and his superb sounding 10 piece orchestra.
Signature very cleverly sells BEACHES' tissues at the concession stand. I thought it would have been fun to have ushers sell them to the audience before the show and pitch them to customers like peanuts at a ball game.
Do not miss this musical. Producers have been flocking to the show not only from New York but from England. For tickets, call 703-573-SEAT and online at www.signature-theatre.org. There will be a discussion of the show following the March 4 performance.