Disaster!, the new musical from Broadway personality Seth Rudetsky, has all the ingredients to live up to its name. It’s a jukebox musical of assorted ’70s hits (and a few deep tracks) that’s also a broad, shticky parody of retro epics, all spread over two campy acts. There’s so much that could go wrong, but the performances are so unapologetically silly and the production is so bright with flashing disco lights that ultimately you’re blinded to its flaws: humor that can miss the mark and campiness that’s sometimes a bit too overwrought.
The plot most closely resembles The Poseidon Adventure, and like any formulaic catastrophe flick, the show spends most of its opening half setting up the stakes for its ensemble of characters who’ll later be running, swimming, or tap-dancing for their lives. Tony, a venal businessman (Roger Bart), comes up with the ingenious idea to open a casino… on a boat! On its maiden voyage is a cater waiter Chad (Adam Pascal) who’s smooth with the ladies, except for the one that got away, Marianne (Kerry Butler), a writer who happens to be chasing a scoop on Tony’s corrupt dealings. Also aboard are Levora (Lacretta Nicole), a be-afroed former disco star, and a long-married couple, Shirley and Maury (Faith Prince and Kevin Chamberlin), who buy a ticket for a nun named Sister Mary (Jennifer Simard): she preaches against vice but is secretly fighting a gambling addiction of her own. Providing the ship’s entertainment is a lounge singer, Jackie (Rachel York), saddled down by her twins Ben and Lisa (both played brilliantly by Baylee Littrell). Rudetsky himself plays Dr. Ted Scheider, a “double-PhD geologist” who warns that a major geological event is imminent and that any loud noises or heavy movements — singing or dancing, say — could trigger a massive earthquake/tsunami/apocalypse.
Of course, the loud noises and heavy movements come early and hard, and the songs of the disco era are used to cheeky effect. In the opening expository number, “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer, the “hot stuff” refers to any number of things: the sexy times Chad is looking for, the smoldering magma Dr. Ted is looking for, and the above-room-temperature casino food Tony is looking for. As the ship nears its terrible fate, each of the passengers gets at least one memorable musical moment. Sister Mary caresses a Hawaii Five-0-themed slot machine while sultrily crooning Mary MacGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers” — the lovers being the slot machine and Jesus Christ. (And yes, you better believe Sister Mary also sings Sister Janet Mead’s Top 10 hit, “The Lord’s Prayer”). Pascal belts out Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” in a cabin bathroom. And Levora catalyzes the titular tsunami/earthquake with a rendition of Amii Stewart’s “Knock on Wood.” Perhaps the biggest showstopper in a musical packed with them is Jackie’s “duet” with Ben/Lisa to Linda Ronstadt’s “When Will I Be Loved.”
Once the tsunami hits — and flips — the ship, the delightful and sometimes gory practical effects abound, and they’re more ingenious the more slapdash they are. Disaster! is pure maximalism — a big, old-fashioned musical with big numbers and big performances. A lot of the fun is in recognizing the ’70s references, but even ’80s babies like me will be swept up in the show’s energy. B+