BWW Album Review: That 70s Show, DISASTER!
It takes guts to write a parody of 1970s disaster movies. After all, AIRPLANE!, the parody of the AIRPORT series, is one of the most beloved comedies of all time. It also takes guts to write a 1970s jukebox musical. A show you may have heard of called MAMMA MIA! ran for nearly 14 years and 6,000 performances. Nevertheless, into this field of exclamation points flew DISASTER!, a parody of 1970s disaster movies...and a 1970s jukebox musical. The show, co-written by multi-hyphenate Seth Rudetsky (who also plays one of the main roles) and director Jack Plotnick, was perhaps a bit slim for the past Broadway season. Its silliness, specificity, and lack of original songs may have caused it to struggle amid the powerhouse shows surrounding it, and it closed in May after 72 performances. But it did receive some enthusiastic reviews, and in particular acclaim for the breakout performance of Jennifer Simard, who was nominated for a Tony for her performance of a nun with a gambling addiction. (Her big moment in the show, singing "Never Can Say Goodbye" to a HAWAII FIVE-O-themed slot machine, can be viewed online.) Now Simard will be accompanying the show to London. In the meantime, we have Broadway Records' DISASTER! cast album, which contains 28 (!) songs from the show.
The number of tracks alone is enough to convince us that most of DISASTER! will be found in this album. We are missing something--the hilariously gaudy costumes by William Ivey Long, the sight gags, the mugging--but what we have must be enough to recreate the experience of seeing the show. Or is it? The liner notes helpfully offer a very detailed account of the plot (too detailed, when the dialogue quoted includes "The Lite-Brite pieces are lost in the shag carpeting!") and a heartfelt introduction by Rudetsky that makes the process of creating this show--and performing it--sound like a tremendously fun experience.
Of its various cinematic inspirations, the show hews closest to THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Its characters meet their fate on a ship that encounters any number of natural disasters (earthquake, tidal wave, sharks). THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE had its own, excessively self-serious John Williams score, and an Academy Award-winning pop song, "The Morning After." Maureen McGovern's performance of that song epitomizes a certain tone in 70s music, a sound that is both sweetly hopeful and suffocatingly depressing--it must have sounded as if it issued from a time capsule even on the day it was released--which may be why so many songs from that era are used as mood music even in films and TV set in different periods. The songs in DISASTER! sound, of course, less faded and canned. Like THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, it boasts an all-star ensemble cast (here of Broadway talents). Of the movie's cast, Shelley Winters is the best remembered, and happily the invaluable Faith Prince plays her counterpart in DISASTER!
Prince and Kevin Chamberlin duet on "Still the One"--and deserve a better song. In order for this album of music selected for its tackiness and familiarity to claim its own place, the performances of the songs are paramount. And the album features such overplayed and cringe-worthy "classics" as "You're My Best Friend," "Three Times a Lady," "When Will I Be Loved," and--yes--"I Will Survive." Luckily, the cast is able. The voices and personalities are strong enough to make us want to listen to these songs again. Adam Pascal brings a soulful power and impressive ease to his songs, especially "Without You." Simard's performance is perhaps best appreciated on video, where we can see her facial expressions and body language. Roger Bart lends stalwart comic support in several songs, and lets loose amusingly in "Don't Cry out Loud."
Lacretta Nicole is a strong singer, and her energetic performances of "Knock on Wood" and "Come to Me" are among the best tracks. As the ship's lounge singer, Rachel York puts a lot of period flair into her solos. Kerry Butler, one of the best and most reliable comediennes on Broadway, gets to sing "I Am Woman (Hear Me Roar)"--or starts to sing it, since the excerpt feels frustratingly brief. Ironically, this is the longest track on the album (and includes not just dialogue but another song). Butler is as adept and hilarious at dialogue as when she, in HAIRSPRAY, memorably asked, "May I also come 'check it out'?" Her duet with Bart, "Do You Want to Make Love?," is one of the funniest parts of the album. In fact, most of the bits of dialogue on the tracks are welcome, since they make the songs belong more to this show than to their pop origins, and hint at the comedy of the show--a large part of which would have come from the segues of its plot elements and dialogue into apt 70s songs, an element of surprise that's impossible to recreate in an album.
The excellent orchestra, led by Steve Marzullo, plays it straight, and gives its all in a rendition of the HAWAII FIVE-O theme. The orchestrations mostly mimic the original or best-known recordings of the songs; although in a case like "25 or 6 to 4," its slickness can't match the ragged intensity of the original. But this is intended to be campy, and we get the effect of an accomplished shipboard orchestra ready to meet the demands of its passengers. This studio recording could have expanded some of the songs, especially in the first act, that seem cut down; adding a few more lines might have made a difference. But this album may be unusual in having a much stronger second act, and one of the reasons is that more of the songs sound like complete renditions. Another is that more of them feature the full company. It's a shame to hear so little of Prince on this album. (Of course, Ethel Merman didn't get to sing much in AIRPLANE II, either.) , But "A Fifth of Beethoven," in which she tap-dances in Morse code, is something I wish I'd seen on stage. Likewise the impressive performance of 14-year-old Baylee Littrell, who plays twins Ben and Lisa.
Given the truncated length of the tracks (some comically so, such as the 26-second fragment of "Reunited"), it's hard to escape the feeling that the singers are quoting the songs rather than performing them. (Perhaps this is why Pascal's and York's more earnest solos come across so well.) Listening to DISASTER! is sometimes like overhearing a neighbor's party through the wall. But for fans of 1970s music and any of the stars featured here, the album still affords good entertainment, if not as much fun as its cast had performing the show, a feeling that comes across in the ensemble numbers.