by MIKE CHAIKEN
Years ago, I read an album review noting that a certain band was just asking for trouble by calling its latest song “Ordinary Day.”
The critic said putting the word “ordinary” in the title predisposes the listener to believe the song in the grooves was indeed less than stellar and, subsequently, would click off the radio. (The song did, in fact, fail to perform up to expectations.)
So, when Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick called their jukebox musical parody “Disaster! A ’70s Disaster Movie Musical,” they were, if the above critic was correct, setting themselves up for “disaster.”
The show, instead, was anything but a disaster, having been nominated for three Tonys in 2016.
The Warner Stage Company took on the challenge of this madcap comedy, rife with disco and teeth-grinding pop hits from the 1970s, in a production that runs through Sunday, June 23.
And unlike the floating casino that serves as the doomed setting for this send-up of the disaster movies of the 1970s, the show does not run aground.
But it does endure some choppy waters.
There were definitely positive points about the production. But there were some problems as well.
The show certainly has a talented cast. There were many wonderful individual performances. The musical numbers were all extremely well done and I’m sure stirred up a lot of happy memories among audience members who lived through the disco era.
The excellence of the music is a tribute to conductor Dan Ringuette and his band. They did a fab job of recreating golden oldies such as the opener “Hot Stuff” (from Donna Summer) and the plot centerpiece “Sky High” (from Jigsaw). The pit orchestra’s performance set most of the audience’s toes-a-tapping.
The showstopper performance all night was Amanda Friedman as the nun, Sister Mary Downey. She offered up a deadpan performance that elicited a good deal of hilarity when her inhibitions were set free.
Young Sydney Norwell, a 13-year-old who already has an extensive performance resume, also did great (and exhausting work) as the twins Ben Noelle and Lisa Noelle. To play both roles, the teen had to engage in all sorts of theatrical trickery, which was made all the more hilarious by its obvious transparency.
I also enjoyed Lauren Jacob, as the chanteuse Jackie Noelle. She effectively mined the theatrical stereotype of the breathy blonde bombshell (evoking the spirit of Marilyn Monroe). Jacob also was smart enough to avoid letting her performance linger too long in caricature, and subsequently engaged in some subtle character development.
Matt Austin also was great fun as Professor Ted Scheider, the disaster expert trying desperately to warn everyone of impending doom. For me, it seemed as if he were evoking the more laugh-prone overacting dimensions of William Shatner (Capt. Kirk, et al.) and the late Don Adams as Agent 86 in the old 1960s spy parody, “Get Smart.”
Kelly White and Patrick R.Spadaccino, as the starcrossed lovers Chad and Marianne, demonstrated some fine vocal chops in their duets, They also had that certain chemistry necessary for the roles.
Really, from top to bottom, there were no bad performances.
Now, cue up “Taps!” as I offer up some of my reservations with the show.
Clearly, this show is intended to be a madcap, screwball comedy. Every character is wild and exaggerated. The show is designed to milk every stereotypical disaster film character for all they’re worth.
And madcap comedy really needs a breakneck pace for the jokes to work. Things should happen so quickly, so crisply on stage, the audience doesn’t have time to catch up. If done correctly, people should ask themselves, “Did they really just say that?” or “Did that really happen?”
The jokes on stage at the Warner weren’t really swallowed by the performances. But the actors and the pace telegraphed to the audience, “Hold on! Here comes a joke.”
The cast has not gotten to the point where the jokes are reflexive, where they really are these silly, cheesy characters instead of actors who have learned a script.
Also the comedy was undermined by the constant effort to move set pieces on and off stage. The set pieces were creative, but if they interfered with the performances there may have been a better way to handle moving characters from place to place so things were more bing-bang-boom on stage.
Some of these reservations are understandable.
When “Disaster!” was Off-Broadway and on Broadway, the cast and crew had the time to practice and fine tune things based on audience reactions. The Warner Stage Company does not have the luxury of a week of previews to get things humming along.
All in all, however, “Disaster!” was a good time. The audience gave the performance a near unanimous standing ovation. And for an evening out, “Disaster!” is sure to make you forget about life outside of the theater walls for a little while.
And what more can you ask for from a stage musical comedy?
I give “Disaster! A 70s Disaster Movie Musical” three out of five stars.
Performances at the Warner Theatre’s Nancy Marine Studio Theatre, 84 Main St., Torrington of “Disaster! A 70s Disaster Movie Musical,” are Thursday, June 20, Friday, June 21, and Saturday, June 22 at 8 p.m. The Sunday matinee is sold out.
For information, go to WarnerTheatre.org or 860-489-7180.