3/12/2020        DISASTER!    A 70’S DISASTER MOVIE MUSICAL              OnStage Atlanta



(Sloth Alert:  Since I wrote about another production of this spectacle a mere seven months ago, I have indulged my lazybones and here plagiarize all the background discussion from that review.)


Those of us of “a certain age” look back fondly on the movies of the 1970’s as a new “Golden Age of Cinema,” brimming with towering bastions of talent and creativity.  Francis Ford Coppola.  George Lucas.  Steven Spielberg.  Martin Scorsese.  All were seeing their careers take off with groundbreaking films that have all become classics.


Some of us may even have blocked out the memory of those other movies of the times, the Disaster films, those epic exercises in big-budget cheesiness and wholesale slaughter-of-celebrities.  But some memories stick forever, like a bath in something foul that never washes off.  Shelley Winters’ underwater stunt in The Poseidon Adventure.  Jennifer Jones tumbling to her doom in The Towering Inferno.  The   debacle of Sensurround, which was supposed to make movie-goers watching Earthquake think they were really shaking.  Everything about The Swarm.  These are memories ripe for plucking (and eviscerating). 


Welcome to Disaster!  A 70’s Disaster Movie Musical, an elaborate exercise in unapologetic cheesiness that is also a “Juke-Box Musical” for many of our least fond memories of the music of 1970’s.  Okay, I say “least fond” but I do take a very real (albeit guilty) pleasure in hearing too many of these earworms

again.  First conceived way back in 1992 by the Amahhhzing Seth Rudesky, it debuted off-off-Broadway in 2012, graduated to off-Broadway a year later, and finally docked at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater in 2016.  The show was not a disaster, as it garnered mostly positive reviews, but it only lasted for two short months.


And now, less than a year after Act 3 Productions’ effective 2019 staging, here it is again, being given an equally lively and tongue-in-cheek airing by OnStage Atlanta.  And, once again, I enjoyed every minute of it.


Sleazy billionaire and entrepreneur Tony Delvecchio (who bears more than a few similarities to a certain New York billionaire and entrepreneur of the 1990’s) is opening his new casino, attached to a New York City dock to float around state gambling laws by being essentially a ship in the river (fjord?).  It’s the gala opening, and a veritable Disaster-Movie cast of characters is boarding.  There’s Professor Ted, a Disaster specialist who is the scientific voice of doom and gloom.  There’s Jackie Noelle, the fading lounge singer who is hoping for a proposal from Tony, even though he is a POS who is cruel to her and her twins, Ben and Lisa.  There’s Chad and Scott, best friends and waiters.  There’s Marianne Wilson, intrepid reporter. There’s Maury and Shirley Winters, an aging couple enjoying retirement.  There’s Sister Mary Downey, a nun with a taste for nickel slots.  There’s Levora Verona, a Disco Star long past her expiration date.  And there’s a plethora of passengers and employees and soon-to-die characters filled by an ensemble of enviable chameleonosity.


So, the Disaster-Movie checklist is here – corrupt businessman behind everything that goes wrong (and possessing the courage – and charisma – of a sippy-cup of Jell-O), single-mother coping with her divorce and her unruly twins, pompous scientist who happens to be right, woman keeping secret her fatal illness, and an anonymous cast of characters ripe for vivisection from falling ceilings and (of course) disco balls, savage rats and piranhas, fire, explosion, water, sharks, and bad music.


But the true fun is how the songs are set up – not-so-lame puns, preposterous plot devices, contrived dialogue intros (just wait until you hear the set-ups for songs by the Bay City Rollers and Chicago).  More to the point, there are about a bajillion songs here, and we don’t have to hear any of them the whole way through – they hit their marks, get their laughs, and respectfully yield to the next.  I suspect if “Muskrat Love” had been allowed to endure more than 20 seconds, most of the audience would want to join the cast in the piranha pool.


This is a very large cast, none of whom take it very seriously (and that is a compliment), all of whom have moments of excellence, showing a range of comic skill that attacks the funny bone from every possible angle.  I especially liked young Cady Walls as twins Ben and Lisa (which involved some dexterous character work and quick-change artistry, not to mention some wink-to-the-audience we-know-you-know-what-we’re-doing silliness).  Hannah Marie Craton’s high-stepping Sister Mary is a constant tuneful hoot.  Suzanne Stroup’s Jackie is equal parts fading diva and staunch defender of her children.  Brian Slayton’s Ted is a brilliant amalgam of Geekiness and Authority and Courage.  (I LOVED his “Balance Beam” rescue of Jackie and the kids).


I don’t want to short-change my praise for everyone else, but I am, as I said, feeling lazy today.   For the record, they are Shane Murphy (Chad), Josh Baldwin (Scott), Joshua Williams (Tony), Courtney Loner (Marianne), Lisa Gordon (Shirley), Ken McMillian (Maury), and Summer Bergeron (Levora).  A six-strong ensemble (Charles Bohanan, Hunter Christian, Charis Selleck, Renee Payne, Misty Barber Tice, and Ryan Young) add dozens of characters and victims. 


Yes, the effects are cheap and cheesy, purposely so – a slot machine made of plywood, a mustache with a life of its own, a tacky dummy carried around whenever both twins are on stage at the same time, a pair of stuffed sharks that end up as {deleted by the spoiler piranhas}, fake body parts, ninja-garbed stage hands acting as swing doors or being stranded on stage when the lights come up, etc etc etc. 


What is not cheap and cheesy is the direction by Barry West, the music direction by Paul Tate (not to mention the live band he leads), the choreography by Misty Barber Tice, the lights by Harley Gould, the sound by Charlie Miller, the costumes by Nancye Hilley, and the set (purposeful cheesiness aside) by Darrell Wolford.  All were perfectly “in synch,” and perfectly “tuned” to the spirit of the piece. 


So, Disaster! Is one of those shows you’ll either love or hate, depending on your ability to consume over-the-top cheesiness and songs you thought you had left behind. One critic described the original production as “gushing with Velveeta,” a revolting image to be sure, but, IMHO, spot-on accurate.  It’s funny, it’s silly, and it’s actually not without a (doomed) boatload of affection for the movies and songs it’s allegedly parodying.  And, to my mind, that’s the BEST kind of parody.  So count me on the “Loved It” side of the ledger.


Congratulations to OnStage Atlanta for having the courage to tackle the logistical nightmare that is Disaster!  A 70’s Disaster Movie Musical.  And congratulations for pulling it off without even a hint of theatrical disaster.

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #OSADisaster!   #WhatCouldPossiblyGoWrong #NOTaTrainWreck)

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