Does Disaster! Live up to Its Name?

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There’s that old maxim that you shouldn’t act with animals or children, for they’ll steal the show from you.

In DISASTER! performer Seth Rudetsky — the popular Sirius XM talk show host, conductor and frequent PLAYBILL “Broadway on the High Seas” performer — could have used some additional advice.

In this musical he wrote with director Jack Plotnick (with help from Drew Geraci), Rudetsky penned a part for himself: Professor Ted Scheider, who predicts that the Barracuda, the new floating casino in the Hudson, will soon be destroyed by earthquake. Although Rudetsky does share the stage with a few animals, they’re all stuffed ones; thus Rudetsky doesn’t run the risk of anyone’s shoving him out of the spotlight.

Children? Rudestky gets more competition here, because he and his partners wrote two into show: Ben and Lisa, fraternal twins who belong to Jackie (the amusing Rachel York), the ship’s chanteuse. What the creators cleverly (and economically) decided, however, was that one kid would portray both twins.

So Baylee Littrell is busy all night long slipping behind a piece of scenery where he dons or removes a baseball-capped girl’s wig as he segues from boy to girl and back again. It’s an inspired notion, and Littrell is easily up to the challenge; his doing double duty results in his receiving three times the applause he would have earned if he’d only played one child.

So animals and children really don’t threaten Rudetsky’s presence on stage — but the rest of the cast does.

The plain truth is that Rudetsky is working with performers who have an aggregate 12 Tony nominations: Roger Bart, Kerry Butler, Kevin Chamberlin, Adam Pascal, Faith Prince and even current chorus boy Manuel Felciano have all spent at least one Sunday night in June in formal wear while sitting in a big New York theater. Bart and Prince even left their seats and took to the stage to pick up their prizes. And although Jennifer Simard only can claim four Drama Desk nominations (including one for this show when it played off-Broadway two years ago), she may well find in May that she’s joined the dozen nominees. Hell, in June she may even join the two winners.

Rudetsky isn’t bad, mind you, but he clearly has less stage dust on his feet than the others; his Broadway experience has been pretty much relegated to walking around in a bath towel in the 2007 revival of THE RITZ. And yet, who can blame Rudetsky for not only wanting to be in his own show but also for desiring the best possible cast he could get to make his words shine?

Everyone indeed does. Bart is deliciously oily as the ship owner who took out a $3 million loan to make this ship happen and he’s not letting even an earthquake stand in his way – or Marianne (Butler), a snoopy Times reporter who has her own problems when she runs into Chad (Pascal), a waiter who used to try inventing The Next Big Thing in toys and games but eventually gave up.

And why? Some years back, Marianne left him at the altar, which doomed his self-esteem and his future. Both Butler and Pascal express their respective anguish in hilarious fashion, but he has the added advantage of a semi-gravelly voice that lends itself nicely to the songs of romantic heartbreak.

Prince’s character Shirley (think of Shelley Winters in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE) does take a while to get going, for not until the second act does she reveal a vital fact about herself that allows her to let loose and become very funny. Chamberlin is expert at playing the devoted husband, so he and Prince get the one unabashed sentimental song that doesn’t seek a single laugh. There are times when such sincerity works, but in a show where we become programmed to expect everything to get at least a giggle, we keep waiting; when one doesn’t arrive, we can’t help feeling that the song misfired.

Simard plays Sister Mary, a nun with a semi-sordid past and a lustful secret she’d prefer stay repressed. Some of Simard’s achievement comes from her low-key delivery. If you can keep underplaying when everyone around you isn’t, you’ll stand out. After she’s been off-stage for a while and then returns, the audience coos in delight that they’ll now get to spend more time with her.

This doesn’t mean that everyone else chews Tobin Ost’s almost-minimal scenery. Director Plotnick does a fine job in keeping that from happening.

DISASTER! not only spoofs those ship-sinking, earthquake-y films that dotted multiplexes throughout the ‘70s, but it also uses songs from that era. There’s no list of songs in the Playbill, for such a litany would give away too many jokes. Its absence does deny theatergoers the time-honored Act Two practice of opening up to the song-list page and counting how many songs are left before the show comes to an end.

Actually, even without such a list, theatergoers can see some of the songs coming if they’re familiar with the original vamps. Many a time they laugh during the first notes of the orchestral introduction, filling in the lyric for they’re already ahead of the joke.

DISASTER! is better off when any character breaks into song without any musical introduction whatsoever. Even then, however, the entire joke of the song resides in its first line or two. So do we then need to hear the entire song?

No, and the creators know this, for they stop most songs after a few measures; they’re well aware that the joke is already over. They do give us plenty of laughs, however, by finding many new meanings to many lyrics. They deserve our admiration and – yes – respect for the eye-blinding hours they must have spent poring over every syllable of every word in every lyric in every pop song they were considering, all in order to find something unexpected they could use.

The fruits of their labor are almost immediately established in the opening number: Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.” Yes, the original lyric that stresses the need for sexual release is still there, but the real fun comes when Tony castigates his chef for only offering the passengers cold hors d’ouevres, for he wants his clientele to get some “hot stuff, baby, tonight.” There’s a smart take on the “S.O.S.” distress signal, and Scheider gets a particularly good joke out of some nonsense syllables in that standard-bearer of suburban middlebrow taste: “Feelings.”

But whenever bookwriters try to find enough material to fill a two-hour spoof, they eventually settle for shopworn jokes. Here that happens when a character is seemingly seconds away from death, struggling hard to catch his breath that will certainly be his last – and then the music starts and he sits right up as if nothing was ever wrong with him and delivers a song in robust voice. This gambit is beneath the authors, and in a show that would have profited from pruning, it should have been dropped.

Saying that the creators should have settled for an intermissionless 90-minute show doesn’t take into consideration that at the end of Act One the actors need 15 minutes to get into new costumes and additional make-up to stress what had happened after we last saw them.

Those who dislike jukebox musicals and meta-musicals will have a field day excoriating DISASTER! But by and large it does what it sets out to do. It has a very clever way of using profanity without being the slightest bit profane. Yes, that sounds impossible, but that’s what happens.

Director Plotnick’s only mistake is the way that he’s handled the curtain call. He just brings out the principals, has them stand in a straight line and doesn’t give each an individual bow. That’s all very democratic, but it cheats the audience, which wants to show its specific love for each performer. Even Seth Rudetsky would have received big cheers — albeit more for writing DISASTER! and for all of his other accomplishments in the Broadway arena.