BY DAVID KENNERLEY | “Disaster!,” a goofy spoof of cheesy 1970s disaster films, is chock full of singing and dancing, but the Playbill doesn’t bother to list musical numbers.
That’s because this jukebox musical, by Seth Rudetsky –– the unofficial mayor of Broadway –– and Jack Plotnick, has a serious case of ADHD. No sooner do you recognize one pop hit when it abruptly jumps to something else. There are scant traditional, fully formed musical numbers. I counted snippets from at least 35 period pop songs, which served as tuneful punch lines.
And that’s just one of the many pleasures of this big-hearted, campy comedy. Not only is the timing unexpected, but so are the song choices and contexts. Sure, there are obvious favorites like Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” But I relished forgotten gems like “Do You Wanna Make Love” and “Torn Between Two Lovers,” sung by a nun to a slot machine, no less. And I wonder if Sony/ ATV Music Publishing had any clue what would be transpiring onstage when it gave permission to use Lionel Richie’s “Three Times a Lady” (hint: it involves dismembered body parts).
When a floating casino full of kooks hits rough waters, will there be a morning after?
The creaky book follows the venerable disaster-movie formula — remember “Earthquake,” “Towering Inferno,” and “The Poseidon Adventure?” Here, the setting is a giant, floating casino moored in the Hudson River.
It’s grand opening night, and the guests are a motley bunch with more than their share of personal baggage. We meet a wacky elderly couple from “the last stop on the R train,” Shirley (Faith Prince, channeling Shelley Winters) and Maury (Kevin Chamberlin); a nosy New York Times reporter (Kerry Butler, who starred in a similar parody musical, “Xanadu”); and her lovelorn ex-fiancé (Adam Pascal). Also on board are that singing nun, a long-in-the-tooth lounge singer (Lacretta Nicole), and her bratty preteen twins, among others. These pleasure seekers are in for the time of their lives.
That’s not to say it will be a particularly pleasant time. A pesky “disaster expert” (Rudetsky) predicts that an earthquake is imminent and urges everyone to evacuate, but he’s met with fierce pushback from the scumbag casino owner (Roger Bart). When disaster finally strikes, mayhem follows. Who will live to see the dawn of a new day?
The second act is fraught with riotous shark and piranha attacks, rescue attempts, thorny romantic entanglements, and carnage. The ship’s hunky security officer (Casey Garvin, who also serves as dance captain) meets an especially gruesome — and hilarious — end.
None of this would float were it not for a skilled, committed cast, under the direction of Plotnick. While the calculated histrionics of veterans like Bart and Prince were deliciously on point, my favorite was Jennifer Simard’s nuanced portrayal of Sister Mary, who has a devil of a time reconciling her love of Jesus and her devotion to slot machines. Her well-timed, deadpan comic delivery was a welcome counterpoint to the chaotic swirl around her.
Another standout is Baylee Littrell, son of Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell, who brings a creepy charm to twins Ben and Lisa. Aided by a blonde wig, he slips between characters with aplomb, belting out some impressive solos, like “Ben,” Lisa’s tear-stained ode to her possibly deceased brother. And if you aren’t aware that “Ben” is a Michael Jackson song about a killer rat then you will not fully appreciate this show. Apparently, this is Littrell’s first professional acting gig ever.
Adding an extra dose of whimsy are the garish ‘70s costumes, designed by none other than William Ivey Long.
There are those who will argue that this “Disaster!,” which originated as a concert in 2011, moved to Off Off Broadway, then Off Broadway before it reached the Nederlander Theatre, doesn’t have enough substance to fill a Broadway stage. The inventive sets, by Tobin Ost, are as crude and flimsy as the plot, and the special effects are low tech in the extreme (makeshift dummies stand in for corpses, for example). Much of the staging is rough around the edges.
I would counter that the scrappy lack of polish is a large part of the show’s appeal. What it lacks in heft it makes up for in heart.
DISASTER! | Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. | Through Jul. 3: Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Thu. at 7 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 2:30 p.m. | $65-$135 at disastermusical.com | Two hrs., five mins., with intermission