By Patrick O’Brien
The Poseidon Adventure wasn’t the first disaster movie, but it did set the formula that would establish the genre and then make said genre oh-so-ripe for parody in the years ahead: an opening procession of character-establishing scenes that could politely be called “economic;” a cavalcade of dazzling, often groundbreaking special effects, i.e. “the good stuff;” and a rousing unpredictably predictable surmounting of the odds.
Similarly, David Cerda was not the first person to slap an exclamation point on a cult film and make it a musical, but by turning the S.S. Poseidon’s horrific turning-turtle into Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical, he was able to launch his Hell in a Handbag Productions and secure his title as the camp grande dame of Chicago. And of its many shows, Poseidon! has had the broadest reach beyond Hell, making it as far as New York for the International Fringe Fest in 2003, and has been revived once before at the Chopin in 2009.
How does this second last voyage hold up? A little like that old ship herself: at times fleet, at times a little top-heavy, but always up for non-stop mayhem.
Derek van Barham stages it exactly as it should: moveable bare-bones scaffolding to suggest the twisted innards of the ship; pelvic thrusts, blow-up dolls, and racy innuendo and outuendo abound; and the DIY low-tech capsizing sequence is probably worth the ticket in and of itself.
And as can be expected, all the performers shtick the landing by taking their stereotypical film counterparts over the edge: David Lipschutz’s monomaniacally self-reliant renegade Gene Hackman; Elizabeth Lesinski’s ex-hooker-with-a-heart-of-pyrite Stella Stevens; Frankie Leo Bennett’s toe-headed twerp Eric Shea. Above all, there’s Stevie Love as the blithering lounge singer Carol Lynley; that Love can keep up said blithering over two acts and still be so arrestingly hell-arious is a testament to the craft behind camp.
That said, two acts. It’s a two-hour, twenty-something minute show that could either lose some material to pare it down to a leaner hundred-something minutes, or the existing material gets shuffled around to balance out the two acts. This most pertains to the framing device of an annual Poseidon Adventure-viewing party, both Cerda’s best idea and a bit of a drag.
On one hand, the device offers a deeper examination into how the right movie at the right time can pull someone through. And when one stops to think about it, The Poseidon Adventure’s story of an unlikely band of average Joes engineering their own survival could certainly be attractive. (And would explain the film’s sizeable gay fanbase, which came of age when it was released.) On the other hand, the device holds up the adventure part of the Poseidon Adventure, especially late in Act One after the ship turns over. Caitlin Jackson’s Poseidonite’s monologue about the healing power of the film is a genuinely emotional moment in an otherwise arch evening, but its earnest tone might lend a little more weight to Act Two, when the band of survivors starts getting picked off.
In Act One, we just want to get to the good stuff, and there’s a lot of the good stuff to go around, i.e. Liz Lesinki’s “Just Panties (What Else Do I Need),” one of the catchiest take-a-line-from-the-film-and-make-it-a-song songs ever written. Runner-up: “In the Water, I’m a Very Skinny Lady,” sung, naturallement, by Tommy Bullington’s Shelley Winters.
It’s overall a gaudy and fun twenty-year hurrah for a Chicago theatrical institution. Hell in a Handbag may not have invented camp, but they’ve made their own recognizable brand of it for nearly twenty years, and they show no sign of stopping. So why not jump in the water and ride the wave while you can, see how it all began?
Hell in a Handbag Productions presents “Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical” through April 28 at the Edge Theater, 5451 North Broadway, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.