While I wouldn’t call it groundbreaking, there is a guilty pleasure shaking up Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre: Disaster!, a new(ish) musical by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick. As the name implies, Disaster! pays homage to a slew of disaster/thriller movies releases in the 1970s. Generation X’ers will gleefully recognize a hodgepodge of plot points from Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Piranha (1972), Earthquake (1974), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Jaws (1975)—among others, I’m sure.
The paper-thin plot involves a shoddily constructed casino boat built on the Hudson River by developer Tony (Roger Bart) and an impending seismic shake-up predicted by disaster expert Ted Scheider (Seth Rudetsky). Gathering on board for the docked ship’s inaugural evening of gambling and entertainment include retired couple Shirley (Faith Prince) and Maury (Kevin Chamberlain), entertainer Jackie (Rachel York) with her twin children Ben and Lisa (Baylee Littrel), out-of-work singer Jackie (Lacreta Nicole), investigative reporter Marianne (Kerry Butler), waiters Chad (Adam Pascal) and Scott (Max Crumm) and a nun, Sister Mary (Jennifer Simard). Expanded from its Off Broadway run last year, the cast now also features a small ensemble that scrambles between wigs and polyester to fill out the production numbers choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter.
There was something scrappy and fun about seeing the show’s previous incarnation at St. Luke’s Theatre as the revolving door of Broadway actors came in and out of the cast to play in Rudetsky and Plotnick’s shark-infested theatrical swimming pool. The net-free jump to Broadway meant bigger budgets (including glitzier costumes by William Ivey Long and an underwhelming set by Tobi Ost) but also, perhaps, bigger expectation. At $135 for orchestra seats, audience members may expect more production value for the dollar. That being said, the high voltage cast delivers mostly hilarious performances and an array of familiar tunes assembled from the 1970s pop music songbook.
Standouts include the bronzed and plumped Rachel York, whose wide-eyed and dimly lit Jackie is lifted right off the celluloid of those familiar films, along with super quirky Jennifer Simard, the guitar-playing nun with a secret gambling addiction (and equally secret high-octane belt). Faith Prince, as the fatally diagnosed Shirley, also chews her way through the scenery (as well as her costume, as she shoves her blouse into her mouth to hide Tourettes-like symptoms). You get the idea of where this is going.
While the plot twists and turns through an amalgamation of the aforementioned movies, the musical’s lack of original music occasionally feels contrived, though it’s fun to recognize the jukebox score, including “Hot Stuff” (Donna Summer, 1979), “Saturday Night” (Bay City Rollers, 1975), “Torn Between Two Lovers” (Peter, Paul & Mary, 1976), and so on.
Disaster! doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is. The average movie price to see one of its inspirations on the big screen would have been $2.05 in 1975—perhaps the biggest disaster is the unaffordability of tickets for today’s theatergoer.
Here’s what other critics are saying:
“Disaster! has such a sensational cast that musical lovers incognizant of the guilty pleasures of the movies being lampooned, and ignorant of the show’s soundtrack — a staggering stack of 45s you loved to hate, or hated to love, or a little of both (“Torn Between Two Lovers,” “Feelings,” “I Am Woman”) — may still have plenty to savor.” — Charles Isherwood, The New York Times
“Calling all disco queens. Get out your best polyester frock and fluff up your fro — it’s party time on the Barracuda, the casino riverboat bound for destruction in Disaster!, a ridiculously if unevenly funny Broadway musical (by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick) sending up the 1970s cultural zeitgeist. Corralling a catalog of pop and disco hits to tell their spoofy story, the creatives find much to laugh at in the garish fashions, cheesy movies, weepy pop songs and disco-druggy dance tunes of that beloved era.” — Marilyn Stasio, Variety
“The show’s relentless, one-note silliness grows tiresome, resembling a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that goes on way too long. During its earlier runs at smaller venues, it was easier to just enjoy Disaster! as an overstuffed but inspired sendup of cheesy 1970s pop culture.” — Matt Windman, amNewYork
208 West 41st Street
Through July 3
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor, follow him on social media at @roodeloo.