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8, Mar 2016
Cast photo by Jeremy Daniels Photography

Disaster! the musical

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Disaster! A Musical. By Seth Rudetsky & Jack Plotnick. Nederlander Theater, New York.

*

Seth Rudetsky has become well-known as the Broadway channel host on Sirius XM and a Playbill columnist. For years before that, he was admired by music theater professionals for his pianistic skill and his coaching and conducting of Broadway performers. All along, he’s been a devotee of 1970s culture and has an encyclopedic knowledge of that era.

In 2013 Rudetsky created Disaster! A Musical off-off-Broadway and found a responsive reception among people who remember the cheesy disaster movies which were popular during that decade.

Now his campy spoof on the genre that included The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure has come to Broadway. The show specifically mimics the scenes in The Poseidon Adventure where the ship capsized and the sets had to be built upside down.

Seth has earned respect from seemingly everyone in musical theater and was able to recruit big names for this production, including many Tony-Award winners such as Faith Prince, Roger Bart, Kevin Chamberlin, Adam Pascal, Kerry Butler and Rachel York.

The intentionally silly plot is set on a floating discotheque and casino, built by an obnoxious womanizer and self-promoter played with relish by Bart. The “noted disaster expert” played by Rudetsky warns everyone of impending doom because the casino is docked over a fault line that’s due to blow. Some of the dangers could have been avoided, but Bart’s character was cheap and violated security regulations. Therein lies the disaster, combined with earthquakes, tidal waves and killer bees. The songs from the ‘70s are cleverly coordinated with the dialogue.

For example, when a big explosion on the ship causes a massive fire, they sing “You’ve Blown it All Sky High.” When folks try to get through a door we hear “Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd. The Gloria Gaynor song “I Will Survive” is another one of the neatly-placed numbers.

Show-stopping moments include Prince’s tapping out Morse code to try to save people trapped in the water. A really pleasant surprise is the compelling acting and singing of Rudetsky. Who would have guessed that the fast-talking radio gabber could slow down his delivery and make dramatic points? And even though Rudetsky is known for spotting and criticizing off-key performances of others, who would have predicted that he himself would hit high notes with unerring pitch?

Young Baylee Littrell plays boy-girl twins in a parody of the many cute kids in ‘70s movies. And Jennifer Simard plays a sweet-faced nun who recalls Helen Reddy’s similar appearance as a sister in Airport 1975.

The Disaster! design team included choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter (School of Rock), Tobin Ost (Newsies) for sets, William Ivey Long (The Producers) costumes and Jeff Croiter (Peter and the Starcatcher) lighting.

For those who have nostalgia for the 70s, and those who want a very fun, not-serious Broadway show, this is a great experience.

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