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THEATER REVIEW Disaster!
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2018-04-25

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Playwrights: Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick

At: The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway. Tickets: 773-999-9541; ChicagoTheatreWorkshop.org; $ 32.50-42.50. Runs through: May 6

Chicago Theatre Workshop is presenting Disaster!, a musical comedy set in the '70s that pokes fun at natural disaster films from the past. The setup is simple, a wide array of characters are thrown together and put into survival mode while singing classic hit songs onboard a casino cruise in this fish out of water comedy musical.

The show hits the ground running from the jump introducing strong personalities ranging from a disco diva to a nun with addiction problems. Director Ben Baylon stays in the tradition of past productions by keeping the show concise and quickly paced. It moves so fast sometimes a few of the lines were covered up by laughter throughout the opening night performance.

There are too many standouts in the cast to mention, but this simply shows how well rounded and smartly written the characters are. The actors were able to put their own spin on it and had moments to shine with fully developed characters. The old expression about being upstaged with children certainly holds true here. The talented, young Pierce Cleveland plays twin roles and switches genders between Ben and Lisa while taking no prisoners along the way.

Britain Gebhardt steals every scene as the wide-eyed Sister Mary Downer, and her pronunciation of Jesus was unforgettable. Melissa Young and Shane Roberie, as Shirley and Maury, reminded me of the Ropers, and Marcellus Burt and the dance ensemble stepped it up and did the hustle with toe-tapping results.

Similar retro hit musicals like Mama Mia! sometimes have awkward transitions from the plot to the playlist, but this project turns that idea upside down. The lyrics would answer the characters questions that continued to bring the house down. There were a multitude of song choices to pick from and obtain the rights to that it must have been challenging to produce. Another blockade was the fact that some of the songs were only allowed in past New York productions did not make it to Chicago this time out because of regional rules.

The obscure tracks selected were certainly enjoyable for old and new generations. When was the last time you heard Jigsaw's "Sky High" or Mary MacGregor's "Torn Between Two Lovers?" Times seemed so much simpler when these were the soundtrack to our lives. While songs like "Disco Inferno" would seem obvious, we at least had "Hot Stuff" to start the fire.

"Feelings" worked really well being both humorous and touching at the same time. The hits kept on coming and pushed the campy plot right along. Using a live band located on the wings instead of piped in tracks was a smart move. Singers in the cast like Nathan Cooper and Jessica Van have the chops and vocal range to add some really nice nuances to their perspective songs thanks to being supported by the band. From a large catalogue of artists such as Diana Ross, Donna Summer, and Barry Manilow this team continued hitting all the right notes.

Co-creator Seth Rudetsky attended a post show talk back on April 21. He gave advice to the cast and spoke of the show possibly heading to the West End in London in the future.

Don't miss Disaster! in this local production before a hurricane sweeps it out of town.


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