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Disaster!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Disaster!
Mary Testa and the cast.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Think Airplane! was the last word on 1970s disaster flicks? Well, er, it sort of was — at least on the big screen. But for stage mavens, there's a suitable jukebox-musical companion piece to be found in Disaster!, the giddy, dopey, and thoroughly winning new show by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick at St. Luke's Theater.

If your plan is to try to resist all its overtly obvious charms, expect to last a minute, tops. Sure it's one thing for two guy friends to sing about the sexual conquests they plan to make while working aboard the floating Barracuda casino. But when a scientist comes in looking for overheated soil to prevent a catastrophe, the casino owner wants to make sure the food isn't served cold, and all three scenarios are set against the increasingly frantic "Hot Stuff," you'll be in hysterics before the story's even really begun.

Once it has, and you meet the well-meaning nun-with-a-secret Sister Mary, the down-and-out black singer looking for a comeback, the shipboard entertainer with two strangely identical children and a heart of gold, and the vacationing older couple out for one last fling before mortality strikes, and you have all the ingredients of a first-rate parody. Populated with an eye-popping array of some of New York musical theatre's best stars, the final product becomes downright irresistible.

To discuss too much more of what happens would be unfair to writer-conceiver Rudetsky and writer-director Plotnick, as they've structured and executed the show to invite surprise and eye-rolling delight with each new plot twist and cliché inflated to sky-scraping proportions. And as the story unfolds, and the Airport–meets –Towering Inferno–meets –Poseidon Adventure–meets –Jaws proceedings get more and more raucous, the laughs don't dissipate much; the absurdity, in fact, stretches two hours to the final scene, far beyond what most shows of this style are able to sustain.

This is not to say that Disaster! is perfect. The sets (by Josh Iacovelli, who also designed the lights) look cheap beyond their humor value, the juiciest parts of the plot take too long to get going (the titular event, or rather the first in a series, doesn't occur until just before intermission), and Rudetsky is by far the weakest link as a performer, unable to find in his large role as the scientist even a scintilla of the funny while speaking and singing that he's helped Plotnick elicit in writing. But, all things considered, the tribute paid to the genre is sure-footed, and the use of the era's pop hits as good as it could possibly be.

Then, of course, there's that otherwise incomparable cast. Jennifer Simard splits perhaps the most sides as the nun, deploying a wholly hilarious overdose of penitence that gives way to lurid sin at the worst (and, therefore, theatrically the best) possible moments. Mary Testa and Thom Riis Farrell as the older couple come in right behind, with Testa a particular scream as her disease ravages more and more of her propriety and common sense. Michele Ragusa is marvelously wry as the ship singer, as is Jonah Verdon as both her boy and girl (with quick changes between the two roles being among the evening's richest comedic highlights), and Charity Dawson a joy as her African-American counterpart.

Everyone, however, is terrific, even Matt Farcher and Haven Burton in the ostensibly starchy roles as the earnest young lovers who are dizzily unaware that they've landed in the middle of something nowhere near as serious as they are. That they get you to care about their ridiculous relationship when there's no good reason you should — his Big Ballad is "Alone Again, Naturally" and hers is a mash-up of "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" and "That's the Way I've Always Heard it Should Be," for goodness sake — is an impressive accomplishment.

But given its modest aspirations and the low bar for shows of this type, that this one works so well is a noteworthy achievement. No, it isn't destined to ever sit alongside the greatest musical comedies Broadway has ever produced, but it's far better than run-of-the-mill jukebox junk. And isn't it remarkable enough that a musical with creators brazen enough to call it Disaster! turns out to be anything but?


Disaster!
St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 West 46th Street
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes with one intermission
Performances: Mon 7:30 pm, Tues 7:30 pm, Wed 2:30 pm, Fri 8:00 pm
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge