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Chicago by John Olson

Beaches
Drury Lane Theatre

Also see John's review of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike


Shoshana Bean and Whitney Bashor
You know those people who suck all the air out of any room they enter? Who have to be the focus of attention regardless of the circumstances? Such a person is the character of Cee Cee Bloom, who originated in Iris Rainer Dart's novel "Beaches" and was played famously by Bette Midler in the novel's 1988 movie version. Cee Cee, of course, was a musical theater performer and pop singer know for her outrageous, oversized performance style and behavior (with no small resemblance to Midler). Beaches is the story of Cee Cee's lifelong friendship with Roberta (Bertie) White (named Hillary in the film), a much more reserved and introspective type. It's a good story and certainly made a popular movie, with Barbara Hershey's quiet beauty an effective counterbalance to Midler's brashness.

There's a problem, though, in adapting this story for the musical stage, which is that in a musical, you sorta have to give songs to both your leads—and if one of the lead characters is a successful brassy musical theater star, she better be brassy and good. Well she is, and in the hands of Shoshana Bean she's very good, with all the ballsiness of Midler but without attempting an imitation (we have drag queens for that, thank you very much). It's no fault of Bean's, but the result is that Cee Cee really overpowers Bertie (even as solidly played by Whitney Bashor). It becomes more the story of a friendship as seen through the eyes of Cee Cee rather than a balanced look at how opposites attract and are good for each other.

The trouble in this adaptation, which premiered at Virginia's Signature Theatre last year where it was and is again directed by Eric Schaeffer. is not only that Cee Cee has more songs than Bertie (and belts them with gusto). While Cee Cee sings in 20 of the 23 musical numbers, Bertie shares in just 12 of them, plus one brief solo, the script by Rainer Dart and Thom Thomas makes Bertie's story harder to follow than Cee Cee's and makes Bertie more passive than she was in the film. Cee Cee's career and life choices are mostly clear—she progresses from summer stock to Broadway to concerts and finally TV, losing a husband along the way because of her ambition. On the other hand, Bertie goes from costume designer at the summer stock playhouse to student at a prestigious Paris design school, then chucks it all to marry the snotty rich kid from Pittsburgh she earlier dumped at the altar on Cee Cee's urging. Then she becomes simply a rich and ideal housewife, apparently. Granted, women did that in the sixties, when this part of the story is set, but that decade also saw the rise of feminism. Okay, maybe Bertie wasn't a feminist yet, but the script could provide more motivation for her decision to forgo a career in favor of a marriage to a man for whom her feelings were ambivalent at best. You'd like to think Bertie had strength of some sort in order to hold her own with Cee Cee.

That said, Ms. Bean is highly entertaining in the role, and the original score—with very creditable lyrics by Rainer Dart and decent melodies by David Austin—gives her a number of moments. She has a power ballad as an audition song in one of the early summer stock scenes, "The View from Up Here"; a mock Broadway production number (with some snappy choreography by Lorin Latarro) called "What a Star Looks Like"; a disco number ("All I Need") for a Miami concert appearance; and gives a heart-felt reading of "The Wind Beneath My Wings." That song by Jeff Silber and Larry J. Henley is the only one carried over from the film, and it's done as a recording session in a style that is not imitative of the iconic Midler version. We don't doubt Cee Cee's bond with Bertie, and Ms. Bashor is an appealing performer as well, given what the script provides her to work with. This won't be spoiler for anyone who's heard of Beaches in any form, but Bertie dies an untimely death due to illness. Rainer Dart and Thomas's book handles the death tastefully and in a way that rightfully earns a few tears.

The familiarity and popularity of the title and the proven market for stories of female friendship (Wicked, anyone?) gives Beaches a reasonable shot at its goal of opening on Broadway next spring. But there is much work to be done if they hope to run past next year's Tony Awards, though most of it is quite fixable. Let's start with the most glaring problem—the set. It's a flat covered with letters signifying the lifelong correspondence between Cee Cee and Bertie, with the walls opening occasionally to reveal (what else) beaches and small pieces of furniture rolled on for different scenes. For a story that is set over a 33-year period in locales that include Broadway, Miami, Paris, a Hollywood TV studio, and a summer stock theatre, there's much potential to transport the audience to exotic times and places, but it's not happening yet. The credits intriguingly list Derek Mclane as "scenic consultant," but no set designer is credited. McLane designed the set for last year's Signature run, which appears to have had a similar concept—a huge wall not of letters but of tables and chairs piled on to each other.

The songs by Austin and Rainer are missed opportunities in many cases as well. The opening number is Cee Cee's song for a kids' talent show in Atlantic City circa 1952 and rather than evoke images of the early Eisenhower era it reminds us of how a kids show opened Gypsy. The song itself seemed okay, though it was hard to understand the lyrics given the sloppy sound design and poor diction of Presley Ryan (who originated the role of Little Cee Cee at Signature as well). Similarly, there's a song in the summer stock theater called "This Is the Life" that ought to make us feel like we're in that very special time and place, but it only evokes unfortunate comparisons to "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Another Op'nin', Another Show." Surely there are enough idiosyncrasies in a small theater (and I know that there are) to build a funny lyric around them.

There are opportunities to do more with the male characters, too, even while admitting this is not a story about men. There's John, the summer stock director who marries Cee Cee after a dalliance with Bertie. He becomes little more than a Star is Born Norman Maine to Cee Cee's Vicki Lester, though he is played by Travis Taylor, and we do get to hear Taylor's glorious baritone for one solo. Michael, the arrogant rich guy who marries Bertie is two-dimensional, but Jim De Selm perfectly captures that and makes a decent villain. Finally, there's the middle-aged bachelor doctor Arthur who briefly romances Cee Cee. Andrew Varela does nicely with what he has, but this seems a missed opportunity for more comic invention.

Schaeffer made his name nationally with his stunning revivals of Sondheim musicals, but he also had a reputation as an effective show doctor, readying such troubled shows as Maltby, Shire and Weidman's musical Big for the road. There's a story about the most famous show doctor of all, George Abbott, and the time one of the shows he was directing was in trouble and someone asked him what they should do. His advice was "call in George Abbott." Maybe Mr. Schaeffer needs to call in Mr. Schaeffer.

Beaches runs through August 16, 2015, at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. For ticketing and other info, call 630-530-0111 or visit www.drurylane.com.


Photo: Brett Beiner

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-- John Olson



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