'Disaster!' Skewers The 1970s At CT Rep

I am old enough to remember when disaster movies weren't automatically self-parodic. “Airport” (1970) and “The Poseidon Adventure” (1974) were pretty sober affairs, but by 1976 we already had “The Big Bus” and in 1980, “Airplane!” Now we live in an age of “Sharknado.”

I am also old enough to remember when summer theaters could regularly entice Broadway stars to re-create roles they'd made famous on Broadway.

I'm also (to my eternal dismay) old enough to have lived through the AM radio soft-rock scare of the early ‘70s, and the disco dancing scourge of the 1970s that followed hard upon. Those terrifying cultural trends disturbed me more than “Jaws,” “Earthquake,” Towering Inferno” and all the other disaster flicks put together.

“Disaster!” is a musical theater parody of 1970s disaster flicks. The show was seen off off Broadway in 2011, off Broadway in 2013 and for two months on Broadway in 2016. A new production at Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs through June 16 stars “Disaster!” co-creator Seth Rudetsky, and is directed by its original director Jack Plotnick. Maggie McDowell, who like Rudetsky was in disaster's original off-Broadway and Broadway casts, reprises her role of Sister Mary, a nun with addiction issues. Rudetsky and Plotnick write in the program notes that Anne L. Nathan, who plays the brassy busybody Shirley, was unable to do the role when first offered it in the Broadway production, but does now. The other Equity union member in the cast is Angie Schworer, whom Rudetsky notes he recruited because he liked her work in “The Producers” on Broadway.

The “Disaster!” score is cobbled together from cringeworthy ‘70s pop hits by the likes of Helen Reddy, Chuck Mangione, Lionel Richie, Eddie Money and too many others. The songs are celebrated for their badness, and they are used as pretexts for corny gags. A child asks his mother how to spell “Saturday Night,” and she responds “S-A-T-U-R, D-A-Y, night.” Rudetsky’s scientist character mourns his dead wife, who’s named Wo, during a recitation of “Feelings”: “Wo, wo, wo, feelings...” Someone’s heart stops, and is revived while singing “Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat.”

Making fun of bad songs doesn’t make them better, especially when you insist on singing multiple verses of them. Having a character named “Ben” just so you can justify singing the Michael Jackson song of the same name doesn’t exactly help you build empathy for already underwritten characters. Too much of the plot is dependent on lousy lyrics from songs you’d like to have forgotten.

Rudetsky, his friends and castmates, and some game young recruits (most of whom attend or recently graduated from the musical theater program at the University of Michigan) deliver this material as expertly as any cast could. McDowell gives the sorely tempted Sister Mary a delirious deadpan and some wild unholy gyrations. Nick Nudler, who just graduated from UConn’s acting program is especially sharp as the frilly-shirted mustachioed villain of the piece. Another stand-out is young Sana “Prince” Saar, plays the dual roles of tormented twins Ben and Lisa. His quick-change antics are well-timed, and like most of the cast, he seems like he’s having fun onstage. It’s hard work dodging sharks, chandeliers, tidal waves, piranhas and slot machines while dancing up a storm, but the denizens of “Disaster!” do it with style, if not taste.

As with the multiple “Airport” sequels (not to mention “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure”) and the song stylings of England Dan and John Ford Coley, there is a ready audience for this distinct kind of comedy. I detected that numerous members of the audience were doubled over in mirth. On Saturday night (please do not spell it out), there were numerous pauses for the laughter to subside, during routines which already seemed stretched to the breaking point.

Me? I ran for dear life as soon as “Disaster!” ended. It took several dozen Ramones songs on the car ride home to assure that I wouldn’t be humming the tunes from this curious misadventure of a modern American musical.

DISASTER! continues through June 16 at the University of Connecticut’s Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Road, Storrs. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $60. 486-2113, crt.uconn.edu.

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