Set Sail for Hell in a Handbag's Stellar POSEIDON!
Fret not fans of camp musical theater. The 2019 revival of POSEIDON! AN UPSIDE DOWN MUSICAL, Hell in a Handbag's parody of the classic 1972 disaster film, is in top ship-shape and worthy of you booking a passage. It's a laugh riot of epic proportions.
The cast is divided into two groups (more or less). The Climbers feature actors playing the characters from the iconic film while the Poseidonites are actors playing the ultimate fans of the film who gather every New Year's Eve to watch the film and ring in the New Year at the exact moment it happens in the film.
Reverend Scott (David Lipschutz, who has mastered the comedic art of the raised eyebrow) is being shipped off to a missionary due to his controversial and progressive views. Mr. Martin (Scott Sawa) is a shy and closeted haberdasher on a much needed break from his men's clothing store and his overbearing mother.
Teens Susan (Katherine Bellantone) and her brother Robin (Frankie Leo Bennett) are on their way to meet up with their parents. Susan can't help fantasizing about the Reverend and Robin, meanwhile, seems to be making the most of his time aboard the ship with Charlie, a never-seen engineer who is, um, mentoring the boy on what really goes on within the bowels of the ship. Bellantone has the surly teen bit down and Bennett is also charming in his naiveté.
Manny (Michael S. Miller) and Belle (Tommy Bullington) Rosen are an intentionally stereotypical Jewish couple. Manny is the long-suffering husband who can't ever seem to get a word (or song) in edge-wise. Belle is a gregarious and zaftig former swimmer. Belle's swan song "(In the Water) I'm a Very Skinny Lady" is one of the show's musical highlights and Bullington dives into the solo with such heart and humor, the tune rises to the level of an ovation-inducing anthem.
Shane Roberie and Elizabeth Lesinski play Rogo, a hard-boiled police detective and his wife Linda (a former prostitute), respectively. Roberie brings an appropriate enough gruffness to his character and Lesinski stands out thanks in part to belting two of the show's best songs: the Kander and Ebb-styled jazz tune "Just Panties" and "Bad Girls Need Love Too."
Another standout is Stevie Love in the role of the ship's dim-witted singer Nonnie. Love never seems to shy away from plunging head-first into absurdity when required by the role. Love's comedic talents are so pitch-perfect, I suspect he could stand on stage reading some dire medical results and still have you in stitches.
As Toni, the head Poseidonite who has organized the annual showing of the film each year, Caitlin Jackson remains one of Chicago's most talented and under-appreciated musical comedians. She can belt a tune like Merman and/or Midler and turn and deliver a tender monologue about how a disaster movie save her life that resonates from a place of truth. She elevates the production to a whole other level as a result.
Some minor quibbles: prior productions have featured the living room of the fans watching the film on stage as part of the set. That isn't done here. Director Derek Van Barham might have made better use of the theater space by using the entire space as part of the show (the audience and Poseidonites would all be attending a movie screening with the stage being the "projection" of the film). It would give the Poiseidonites the freedom to use the whole space to perform and interact with the entire audience as opposed to the first row of the theater and make the two distinct worlds both a bit more believable. Who doesn't love celebrating the New Year in the Spring?
I also shudder to think that camp theater is a generational thing, but it was clear at the performance I attended that many of the younger adults missed some of the in-jokes. One in particular involving Roddy McDowall playing Acres the waiter in the film and also being in "The Planet of the Apes" and it sank faster than an upside down ship taking on water.
Lines about prior productions of the show -including those about former Poseidonites who are no longer with us, also landed with a thud (people who saw the original production in 2002 might be hard pressed to recall the one character in that production who owned all of the "Poseidon" dolls, for instance). It's a hat tip to those who have come before us, but frankly it's purpose is lost on the majority.
Fortunately, Hell in a Handbag Artistic Director David Cerda (who wrote book, music and lyrics for the show) fills his canvas with broad brushstrokes that the end result is still a hilarious romp as well as a heartfelt tribute to a film that impacted many of its fans' lives for the better.
POSEIDON! AN UPSIDE DOWN MUSICAL runs through April 28 at the Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway. Tickets$38-$58. Brownpapertickets.com or 800.838.3006