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Signature Theatre presents premiere of rocky 'Beaches'

Musical TheaterMoviesTheaterMusicEric Schaeffer

Over the course of 24 years, Signature Theatre has given 42 premieres, 18 of them musicals. This commitment to new work cannot be praised enough, even if it's hard to summon much enthusiasm for the 18th of those musicals, "Beaches." 

This piece is based on the Iris Rainer Dart novel about an unlikely, decades-long friendship between two women from opposite worlds.

That story is best known for inspiring the 1988 movie starring Bette Midler as Cee Cee, a brash singing actress destined for the big time; and Barbara Hershey , her moneyed, tender, overly manicured friend, who learns how to really live just in time to get a fatal disease. Hershey's character was called Hilary in the film; she's Bertie in the novel and the new musical.

The cinematic version wasn't exactly a masterpiece of structure or character development, but provided wonderfully weepy diversion.

Although the stage treatment tries hard to be entertain, and to trigger the tear ducts in all the right places, it never quite gets there. All the more frustrating given the potential in the material, and the quality of the resources Signature has poured into the project. A vibrant cast has been assembled for a well-oiled production directed by the venerable Eric Schaeffer, with lots of spirited choreography by Dan Knechtges.  

But things keep getting in the way, starting with the idea of having three actresses for Cee Cee and Bertie -- "little," "teen" and adult versions of each. One age category too many, I'd say. Time and again, theatrical devices take over from theater.

Dart and Thom Thomas collaborated on the book for the musical, which crams in a lot of action, covering the years 1951 to 1983, but not a lot of nuance and context.

A case in point is the pivotal scene when Cee Cee (Alysha Umphress) and Bertie (Mara Davi), both married and not quite happy, get into a wicked fight that drives them apart for a while. The set-up is missing. Cee Cee's bitchiness seems to come out of left field, so the scene becomes just another event to click off, not a chance to get beneath of the surface.

A distinctive score might help the show greatly, but David Austin's songs stay solidly in the prevalent Broadway style of generic melodic contour, comfortable harmonic progression, arpeggiated chords in the accompaniment, and traditional pop rhythms -- leading way too often to the standard build-up of "American Idol"-style wailing, to little artistic purpose or effect.

More troubling is the startling banality of Dart's lyrics. Among the squirm-inducing lines: "God, you must love me to send/you send my unbelievable friend"; "OK, new life, here we go"; and "Someone I hope to heaven will go to hell."

And though you hope it won't be so, as soon as a character starts to sing "Ce-Celia," you know awful rhymes are coming; they include the likes of "deal ya" and "heal ya." If it was meant as tongue-in-cheek, it needs a deeper cheek.

No wonder that the best musical moment in the show -- a real song at last, with a sturdy melodic hook --  is borrowed from the movie. "The Wind Beneath My Wings" (by Jeff Silbar amd Larry Henley), which became quite a hit for Midler, turns up nicely in a recording studio scene. Umphress sings it in beautifully understated fashion, making it all the more affecting. 

Throughout, Umphress is a winning presence, able to dish out the vulgarity and common sense with panache and make you believe Cee Cee's rise and fall and rise. Davi is a perfect match, bringing out the sweetness of Bertie without overdoing it.

The two actresses have chemistry to burn. Too bad the musical doesn't give them a chance to light a long-lasting fire. (The tragic final scenes are so thinly written they lack emotional punch. I suspect there isn't a moist eye in the house.)

There is fine supporting work from the rest of the ensemble, not to mention a hard-working band led by Gabriel Mangiante.

Derek McLane's set, deftly lit by Chris Lee, enables the action to flow swiftly, but the dominant walls with pieces of furniture stuck on them (there's a metaphor there somewhere, I'm sure) grow tiresome. The costumes by Frank Labovitz include lots of fun, over-the-top outfits for Cee Cee.    

"Beaches" reaches for the heights as it spins its tale of friendship, chance and choice. But despite committed performances and engaging moments, it too often screeches back to earth. 

The show runs through March 30.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Musical TheaterMoviesTheaterMusicEric Schaeffer
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