Dallas — Parody in musicals isn’t usually the domain of Broadway. Forbidden Broadway, the most famous parody of musical theater itself, is a long-running off-Broadway hit; and the off- and off-off realms of NYC theater (and the small touring circuit) typically boast at least one parody of a pop-culture phenomenon—Saved by Fifty Shades of Harry Potter’s Friends in the City, or something like that.
But as much as the smaller houses are good fits for parodies that are funnier when the show looks like it was designed by the high school stoners who take a theater appreciation class to knock out an easy elective, Disaster! works better with fly space, a big budget and large sets. How else to capture the theaternado of riffs on famous 1970s disaster flicks set on a luxury cruise liner or the eightysomethingth floor of a skyscraper?
Disaster!, by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick, is the rare musical parody that made it to Broadway, even if it only lasted a few months there in 2016. It definitely knocks’em dead in its first professional Dallas production, by Uptown Players at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Parodies of cultural touchstones thrive on so-stupid-they’re-funny gags, and the ones in Disaster!—both spoken and visual—fire faster than a lit quiver of Roman candles. It helps that Uptown’s production, directed by expert firecracker-igniter B.J. Cleveland, has an ace cast skilled at precision timing and playing every punchline sans winkitude.
Disaster! relies most heavily on The Poseidon Adventure with healthy doses of Earthquake! and The Towering Inferno and dollops of killer-critter flicks like Piranha, Jaws, and Willard. The songs are from the ‘70s too; a few of them disco (“Knock on Wood,” “I Will Survive,” “Hot Stuff”), but most are straight-up lite-radio hits, such as “Feelings,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Baby, Hold on To Me” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” Your reaction will likely be proportional to your taste for such music—in my book, ’70s soft rock is one of the cheesiest phases of the rock ‘n’ roll era, right up there with hair metal and smooth jazz.
But in this parody/jukebox idiom, they work. If the other jukebox musicals that shoehorn songs from one band or genre into an original narrative—Mamma Mia!, Rock of Ages, Head Over Heels—are annoyingly forced, Disaster! makes no apologies for creating a situation explicitly to match a lyric. Two characters reconnect just so they can ooze out “Reunited?” Hilarious. A character is named “Ben” just so the song of the same name (made famous by a young Michael Jackson) can be used when said character has it sung to him by a loved one? Guaranteed to garner laughter-though-groaning.
One short scene involves props and design elements seemingly built for a one-liner, which might be the most ‘70’s sentence imaginable: “Mom, the Lite-Brite pieces are stuck in the shag carpeting.”
Uptown’s production looks like a million (Monopoly) bucks, with multi-level scenic design by Dennis Canright and Kevin Brown; fantastic props by Jo Anne Hull (a bit involving a cotton candy salesman is outrageously funny); frosty-lip-gloss-fab costumes by Suzi Cranford and Jessie Chavez; sublime hair, wigs and makeup by Michael Moore; and scary-delightful puppets rented from GiGi’s Workshop.
That’s all key to making such a light-as-Fresca show work, as is the clever direction by B.J. Cleveland; tight musical direction by Kevin Gunter (vocals throughout are outstanding) and eight-person band; and Trevor Wright's choreography, which is executed thrillingly by the ensemble with enviable unisons. We just don’t see big dance numbers in musicals performed as well as Uptown consistently manages.
Then there’s this cast, excellent on every level. Frequent scene thieves are Laura Lites as Sister Mary Downy, a neurotic nun with a gambling addiction; and Linda Leonard and Randy Pearlman as a married couple on what might be their final vacation (natural disasters notwithstanding). Kyle Igneczi’s hero Chad and Alyssa Cavazos’s journalist Marianne are as perfectly cheesy as a couple in a ’70s toothpaste commercial; Cara Statham Serber’s nightclub singer Jackie and Chimberly Carter Byrom’s once-famous disco diva Levora Verona are big-time hoots. Youth actor Quin Solley equals them all in playing brother and sister twins, which involves clever theater magic to make that work.
There's nothing superscilious about this super-silly-by-design musical, written with obvious love for the catastrophe flicks and the music that inspired it. Uptown’s pitch-perfect production lifts it up where it belongs: One of the best entertainment options around.
» Read our interview with Seth Rudetsky here. He and Jack Plotnick will be at the Uptown production on Thursday, March 28, and will give a talk-back after the show.