Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Signature Theatre

Also see Susan's review of I and You

Mara Davi and Alysha Umphress
Beaches, the musical receiving its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, does many things well, but it still needs some work before all the pieces can fit together.

While Beaches first appeared as a 1985 novel by Iris Rainer Dart, the title is best known for the 1988 film adaptation starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey. The current musical version—with lyrics by Dart, who shares book-writing credit with Thom Thomas, and music by David Austin—does interpolate the song that fans of the movie will expect to hear: Midler's hit, "The Wind Beneath My Wings."

The story follows the friendship of Cee Cee Bloom, a brassy singing actress from the Bronx, and Bertie White, daughter of a wealthy Pittsburgh family, from their meeting on the Atlantic City beach in 1951 through the next three decades. To account for the progression of time, the script provides for three sets of actresses in the roles: (the rather terrifyingly intense) Presley Ryan and Brooklyn Shuck are Cee Cee and Bertie as children, Gracie Jones and Maya Brettell teenagers, and Alysha Umphress and Mara Davi adults.

As Cee Cee pursues stardom, pushed discreetly by her overachieving mother (Donna Migliaccio), Bertie is forced to choose between her dream of becoming a fashion designer and marrying the steady young lawyer (Cliff Samuels) approved by her own reserved mother (Helen Hedman). Both women have ups and downs, but the underlying theme is that they need each other.

One problem with having a larger-than-life character of Cee Cee—who looks and acts a lot like Bette Midler—is that she tends to steal focus from her more subdued best friend. Bertie may have to deal with matters of life and death, but Cee Cee has to worry about whether being there for her dearest friend means she can't film her television show on schedule.

Umphress grabs the stage whenever she appears, especially as showcased in Frank Labovitz's eye-popping costumes. Davi is poised and charming, but she doesn't get to break out until almost the end of the show. They do get one sweet duet in the second act, "Normal People."

Director Eric Schaeffer keeps the action tripping along, aided by emphatic choreography by Dan Knechtges: specifically, a group dance at a summer-stock theater and a delightfully tacky disco routine being performed in a scene set several years before the actual birth of disco.

Derek McLane has created a scenic design packed with old pieces of furniture, console television sets, table lamps, and such—but why? The domesticity doesn't match Cee Cee's outrageousness, and the style of furniture doesn't fit Bertie's patrician background.

Signature Theatre
February 18th - March 30th
Book by Iris Rainer Dart & Thom Thomas
Music by David Austin
Lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart
Based on the novel Beaches by Iris Rainer Dart
Little Bertie: Brooklyn Shuck
Little Cee Cee: Presley Ryan
Leona Bloom: Donna Migliaccio
Rose White: Helen Hedman
Teen Bertie: Maya Brettell
Teen Cee Cee: Gracie Jones
Bertie: Mara Davi
Cee Cee: Alysha Umphress
Michael Barron: Cliff Samuels
John Perry: Matthew Scott
Arthur Wechsler: Michael Bunce
Nina: Svea Johnson
Janice: Bayla Whitten
Ensemble: Maya Brettell, Heather Brorsen, Michael Bunce, Jamie Eacker, Davis Hasty, Gracie Jones, Dan Manning, Ryan Nixon, Robbie Roby, Bayla Whitten
Dance Captain: Robbie Roby
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Musical director/Conductor: Gabriel Mangiante
Choreographer: Dan Knechtges
MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or

Photo: Margot I. Schulman

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