By Barry Reszel
The show must go on.
James Rogers explains the concept in 1985’s Dictionary of Cliches: “Don’t let calamity interrupt the proceedings; we mustn’t stop what we are doing, even if something unfortunate has happened; it would make us look bad or worry the spectators. The saying and principle are traditional in the theater, but apparently they both originated in the 19th century with circuses. If an animal got loose or a performer was injured, the ringmaster and the band tried to keep things going so that the crowd would not panic.”
The loose animal at Chicago Theatre Workshop was of the microbe variety and felled both the male and female principals for the opening of Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick‘s 70s jukebox sendup to the era’s catastrophe films, Disaster!
That’s why first kudos are extended here to Brian Kulaga and Kellie Goddard, understudies to every member of the 15-person cast and under contract for just more than a week before opening.
They did Rogers proud by allowing the show to go on (though most reviewers chose to reschedule their attendance for another night in the run). Furthermore, they did it with general seamless ease, deserving them the attention of other Chicagoland casting directors to go along with the admiration of CTW Artistic Director Tom Mullen, Disaster! Director Ben Baylon and their fellow cast members. Goddard, in particular, shows off a deep vocal registry and natural stage ease.
That said, it’s Britain Gebhardt‘s performance as Sister Mary Downey, a nun recovering from her gambling addiction aboard an ill-fated runaway floating casino, that steals the show in this raucous comedy. It’s as if Saturday Night Live‘s Molly Shannon‘s Mary Katherine Gallagher grew up, joined the convent and traded her armpit sniffing for a terrific singing voice.
Given the random, raucous craziness that is Disaster! it wouldn’t be completely out of the question to learn the character was so formed, but regardless, she leads a cast of generally stock comic characters through their “harrowing” adventures on New York’s first floating disco/casino (unknowingly built on a fault line) in the 1970s. It’s set up as a parody of films like Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure and Airport 1975, among others.
When the slapstick lulls, Disaster! can at times feel dumb, but just when it does, a witty line brings out an individual LOL moment that gives this piece enough credibility to make it silly fun overall. Shout-outs to young Pierce Cleveland, whose simultaneous portrayal of twins Ben and Lisa is a well-played sight gag, and memorable turns by Dan Gold (Todd) Elissa Newcorn (Jackie) and ensemble member Kaleb Van Rijswijck.
As a take-me-back piece of theatre for folks who remember the 1970s, Disaster! could do no better than a songbook that includes mostly well-sung renditions of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours;” “Torn Between Two Lovers;” “Feelings;” “Alone Again (Naturally);” “I Am Woman;” “Daybreak;” “25 or 6 to 4;” “Still the One;” “Sky High;” “I Will Survive;” “A Fifth of Beethoven;” “Muskrat Love;” “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight;” “I’m Still Standing;” “When Will I Be Loved;” “Three Times a Lady;” “Saturday Night” “Nadia’s Theme;” “Knock Three Times;” “Hooked on a Feeling;” “Ben;” “Reunited;” and many more.
It’s as if the jukebox at Greg or Marcia Brady’s favorite hangout was purchased at a flea market and made live by conductor/keyboardist/CTW Musical Director Oliver Towsend, who does the music most proud with help from Janet Cramer on drums and Henry Altenberg on guitar.
Disaster! was conceived in the early 1990s by Rudetsky and pal Drew Geraci but only first produced in 2011 when Rudetsky was asked to do a benefit for the nonprofit, Only Make Believe. He dusted off the idea and, with Plotnick, revised the concept and wrote the first script. From there, it opened off-Broadway in 2012 and on Broadway in 2016, where it played for six months. The whole Disaster! history, details and plot summary may be read here.
Fledgling Chicago Theatre Workshop in just its second season looks to be a different kind of theatre company by identifying promising newer works of music-influenced theatre and evolving them through live productions.
With its newest offering, CTW’s cast of young performers are learning through experience that the show must go on. And that’s no disaster.
Chicago Theatre Workshop presents “Disaster!” through May 6 at the Edge Theatre, 5451 N. Broadway Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.