Review: In hilarious 'Disaster!,' no one is safe from disco

Correspondent

As any musical theater fan will tell you, the art form they love isn’t a one-style-fits-all proposition.

Some musicals are serious, others frivolous. There are Golden Age classics, jukebox musicals, musicals based on movies or books. Certain musicals are just plain silly, while others are hilarious — or, as is the case with “Disaster!,” some manage to be silly and hilarious.

Newly opened in the Broward Center’s Abdo New River Room and bound for the Aventura Arts and Cultural Center after its Fort Lauderdale run, Slow Burn Theatre’s production of “Disaster!” provides a ridiculously funny trip back to the era of Irwin Allen disaster movies and thumping disco hits.

Written by Seth Rudetsky (who will do a post-show question-and-answer session Feb. 15) and Jack Plotnick, based on a concept by Rudetsky and Drew Geraci, “Disaster!” is a disaster-movie parody with a jukebox-musical score. It debuted off-Broadway in 2012, had a second off-Broadway production in 2013 and made it to the Great White Way in 2016.

Here in South Florida, thanks to director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater’s casting, the show’s string of dubious disco-era “gems” — including “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Reunited,” “Sky High” and (shudder) “Feelings” — are sung just about as well as they’ll ever be.

“Disaster!” takes place aboard the Barracuda, a casino-disco ship anchored in the Hudson River. The owner-operator Tony Del Vecchio (Ben Sandomir) is a sleazy guy with a porn star’s mustache, a man only too happy to minimize safety features in order to maximize profits.

He’s having a thing with Jackie (Jeanine Gangloff), the big-voiced blonde who belts the hits in the ship’s show room, but he has little use for her 11-year-old twins, Ben and Lisa (both played by Blake Ferrante). Still, Jackie hopes, if all goes well on the ship’s opening night, the kids just may have a new daddy.

Also aboard the ship (because disaster movies need a lot of characters) are cater waiter Chad (Clay Cartland), a slick ladies’ man, and his way more inept fellow waiter Scott (Chris Alvarez); Marianne (Leah Sessa), a reporter who’s certain that, safetywise, the Barracuda is a disaster in the making; Professor Ted Scheider (Matthew Korinko), a scientist who has evidence that a human-caused “natural” disaster is closer than anyone imagines; the long-married Shirley (Kaitlyn O’Neill) and Maury (Michael Kreutz), who have come for what only Shirley knows will be a last fling; down-on-her-luck disco diva Levora Venora (Deidra Grace); Sister Mary Downy (Margot Moreland), a singing nun and not-quite-recovered gambling addict; and various characters played by Jerel Brown, Nicole Kinzel, Frank Vomero, Brian Varela, Nayomi Braaf and Sara Grant.

The plot, full of nods to various movies from the Allen oeuvre, is goofy and full of setups for gags. Professor Scheider, for instance, became a disaster expert after his beloved wife, Dr. Wo-Ching Lee, suffered death by volcano. Later, he croons an agonized “Feelings,” which, of course, includes the lyric “wo-o-o” in its chorus.

The actors, a stellar-voiced bunch, are only too happy to chew as much of set designer Michael McClain’s simple but shiny scenery as possible (lighting designer Thomas M. Shorrock provides the sparkle, sound designer Rich Szczublewski the disco thunder and Rick Peña the back-to-the-‘70s costumes). Under the topnotch musical direction of Michael Ursua, the performers sing to tracks created by Manny Schvartzman and, thanks to Fitzwater’s of-the-era disco choreography, the cast makes it very hard for a laughing, grooving audience to stay seated.

The “Disaster!” company includes actors with national touring credits and several Carbonell Award winners. Their performances are big, their voices bigger, and they make “Disaster!” a delight.

Sandomir’s Tony, the villain of the piece, is a faux tough guy for whom you feel sorry (well, a little) as he weeps his way through “Don’t Cry Out Loud” for a very good reason.

Cartland and Sessa, whose characters turn out to be exes, turn a post-disaster reunion into a mini-masterpiece of comic flirting. She gets to belt her way drunkenly through “I Am Woman” with a segue into “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” while Cartland tears into “Without You” and imbues his performance with a string of physical grace notes.

As Sister Mary, Moreland uses her powerhouse voice to turn “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Torn Between Two Lovers” into showstoppers, numbers made funnier by the sight of a nun making love to a Hawaii Five-O slot machine. Gangloff is a hoot, her speaking voice modulated so that she sounds like a B-movie actress from noir films, and she’s thoroughly convincing as the kind of singer whose career trajectory would top out on a casino ship. Ferrante, who toured in “Matilda,” deftly changes from Ben to Lisa by adding a baseball cap with pigtails attached, then altering his voice and physicality. He’s really good.

When the sensational Grace, who toured as Sophia in “The Color Purple,” sings the theme from “Mahogany,” you’ll wish that Levora had many more numbers than she does. Kreutz’s Maury is second banana to O’Neill’s Shirley, a woman who practically turns herself inside out as the bizarre symptoms of a sure-to-be-fatal disease take hold.

Sometimes, when the endless barrage of negative headlines gets you down, a nutty parody like “Disaster!” can be a great escape. Slow Burn’s version pays off much more reliably than shady Tony’s slots.

Disaster!” is running through Feb. 18 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. It moves Feb. 22-25 to the Aventura Arts and Cultural Center, 3385 NE 188th St. Broward Center showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday; Aventura showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $45 at the Broward Center, $45 and $49 at Aventura. To order for Broward Center, call 954-422-2662 or go to BrowardCenter.org; for Aventura, call 877-311-7469 or go to AventuraCenter.org.

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