Only one syllable separates deconstruction from destruction, and Seth Rudetsky proved master of both with the mitigated Disaster! that dropped anchor—and everything else—March 8 at the Nederlander, a theatre that has already seen one spectacularly staged sea wreck this season (Amazing Grace) and now hosts another.
Think of Amazing Grace as a single-scene warm-up for an entire show that is now rocked by earthquakes, swamped by tidal waves and gnawed on by sharks and rodents.
In effect, Rudetsky has invented a jukebox Broadway musical that floats (or at least tries to in the wake of the calamities above). Basically, it’s a giddy goof on cheesy catastrophe flicks set to an insistent ‘70s soundscape that keeps disco balls spinning.
It’s something only Rudetsky could have come up with. He seems to have done one of everything in theatre (music supervisor-arranger-conductor-pit musician-song deconstructionist-Playbill diarist-cabaret/cruise ship/radio host-Shavian actor, et al)—but, no! With the help of his co-writer, director Jack Plotnick, he now adds a new herd of hyphens to his achievements: singer-dancer-star-book writer.
Disaster! inched gingerly to Main Stem fruition in three giant steps—from Off-Off-Broadway (The Triad) to Off-Broadway (St. Luke’s) to the big enchilada (the water-logged Nederlander)—a distance of 31 blocks and two and a half years—improving exponentially at every stop. Finally, it became a matter of throwing money at the sets, costumes and special effects and a lot of talent at the characters.
There’s got to be a morning after with these things, and this one rocked away into the early a.m. with an exuberant after-party two blocks north at the Hard Rock Café.
Rudetsky was downplaying what he had wrought. “Research?” he explained. “What research? I grew up—in the ‘70s! I just wanted to come up with some fun characters. The only thing I really wanted to keep was an older woman who saves the boat with her skills.” Hence: Shelley Winters, Olympic swimmer, becomes Faith Prince, Morse Code Tap-Dancer. “Also, every disaster movie has to have a disaster expert no one listens to. That’s why I’m Professor Ted Scheider—because Roy Scheider was in ‘Jaws.’”
Professor Scheider is the prophet of doom on board, “a double-PhD geologist” pointing out the ill-advisability of building a casino ship on a Manhattan fault-line to its sleaze-ball proprietor (Roger Bart) and his flaky show-girlfriend (Rachel York).
Because of the way the cookie quickly crumbles, Rudetsky has written himself something of a hero who winds up with the show-girl and her boy-and-girl twins (played as a sight gag by a solitary Backstreet Boy offspring, Baylee Littrell, in his Broadway debut). Rudetsky’s favorite bit of business is a balance-beam act where he shows his true-blue colors, “but, mostly, I love the lines. I love how brave Rachel and Roger are. I love the song we gave to Adam Pascal where he ends it, lying on the floor, hitting a B with a vibrato. I’m backstage every night listening. I love how he sings.”
Seth Rudetsky's Disaster! Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet, Curtain Call and Party
The playlist is buried in agate credits in the back of the Playbill. Peeking would be giving the joke—and the plot—away, but there are about 30 of the ‘70s vintage songs coming and going, with lead-ins smoothly and amusingly dovetailed into the dialogue by Rudetsky.
“We had a really fun time doing this,” he admitted. “Sometimes it was frustrating, but then you forget how frustrating it was when something works. It was initially frustrating, but most of it was fun. Now it’s only fun because it all works, thank God!”
The 45-year-old Pascal, whose pipes are as ripe as they were when he first aired them at the Nederlander 20 years ago in Rent, was fielding lots of compliments on his voice. “I work it. I take care of it. It’s my bread-and-butter, my money-maker.”
His character, a heroically resourceful waiter reunited among all the turmoil with a girlfriend who had left him at the altar (Kerry Butler), mans the romantic subplot.
“My character’s not the comic relief in the show, but he has so many funny moments in his earnestness and in his sincerity,” he was pleased to report. “That works to my advantage because I’m not a clown. I couldn’t do what Roger does so brilliantly.”
Bart’s vocal prowess is also unchanged by the passage of time. The erstwhile Young (Dr.) Frankenstein, hasn’t shed any of his strident, ear-splitting delivery he saves for the stage. “I learned a long time ago how to figure out how to swing my voice around,” he confessed. “I’m not exactly sure how I do it either, except that’s the advantage of having a large nose, I suppose. But this show requires a lot of vocal passion in order to really land the dire situations that we find ourselves in so much.”
Clearly, he enjoys doing a deep dive into his character’s meanness. “I think that this guy is sorta relentlessly awful—which I love, of course. He’s also so rare. I’ve played a lot of villains on television and, sometimes, in movies, and I don’t get the opportunity often in those contexts to also be funny. Daffy Duck is someone I have always loved. He did terrible, terrible things to Bugs Bunny and all of them because he’s greedy and he’s ruthless and he will literally do anything selfish. I just love that stuff and [to] have the opportunity also to make people laugh. It’s a great combo.”
Kevin Chamberlin, who was perfectly paired with Bart as court clowns in Triumph of Love, is another welcomed West Coast return. He is paired here—again perfectly—with Faith Prince as old marrieds whooping it up not a second too soon.
In rehearsal, they found the one serious moment in the show, “and we went for it. It holds. It’s a blast every night, and it’s not exhausting.”
Prince’s character suffers from periodic rushes of tics, twitches and Tourette syndrome, which, if aligned, could prove to be fatal—and the actress has a field day warding off and then giving into the symptoms. “The Tourette bit is great fun for me to do,” she said. “I have to say that I have no anger left in me by the time I finish the show.
“Everything about this show has been fun. The cast has a good time. We respect each other, and we all work together amazingly well. Honestly, for me, that’s everything. We all got into theatre when we were in high school as a true unit, and it feels like that again. I gotta tell you, it’s great for this old broad to know that’s still out there.”
Lacretta Nicole, in her Broadway bow, gets in some good licks and laughs, belting and barking—as her character’s dog. (“Sometimes, I don’t know which one I’m supposed to do,” she joshed.) Her character is an imposing disco diva who packs a “Pomerpoodian—that’s half-Pomeranian, half poodle. They do exist, but they call them something else.”
And she also has one of the great sight-gags that was created in rehearsal—confusing her massive Afro with a cotton-candy display. “Tobin Ost, our scenic designer, thought that would really be funny so he put together props for us, and it’s in the show.”
The flagrant scene-stealer in this madcap menagerie is a woman of the cloth, Sister Mary Downy, a singing nun toting an out-of-tune guitar and harboring a raging addiction to gambling. She is played by a new kid on the block, Jennifer Simard, a practicing Catholic and no stranger to the habit (she was in the Sister Act ensemble).
“I like the dark side of Sister Mary—the stuff you find most unlovable about yourself,” she said. “There’s so much about her that is, under the surface, troubled. It’s her dark side that intrigues me, and that’s why I love her. I love her struggle—the push-pull she goes through constantly. It’s in that that I find the joy of her story.”
She began the role two years ago when Disaster! played St. Luke’s, and it was the last of her performances that her mother saw. In the Playbill, she dedicates the performance to her. “My mother, Yvette, is why I’m here. I wanted to honor her.”