Surely no one would expect a musical parody of 1970s disaster movies that uses disco and light-rock hits of the era to take itself seriously. But Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick’s “Disaster!” is so jam-packed with one-liners and snippets of said songs that the parody arrow hits the target just barely and albeit sloppily — nowhere near the bull’s-eye.
(And don’t call me Shirley.)
The musical, whose concept is by Rudetsky, a Broadway superfan and genius dissector of show tunes and performances of them, had a three-month run on Broadway in 2016 with a cast studded with Broadway stars. Its regional premiere comes courtesy of Onstage in Bedford, in a fittingly frantic production directed by Lon Barrera.
“Disaster!” which has a terribly long list of creator/arranger credits, is meant to lovingly spoof films like “Earthquake!,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Towering Inferno” and “Airplane!” (with references to when-animals-attack flicks like “Piranha,” “Willard,” “The Swarm” and the great “Jaws”). There’s a joke approximately every 20 seconds, and while that means a good share of them land, the approach quickly wears.
It’s 1979 aboard a casino riverboat and with loads of stock characters, including: a gambling-addicted nun named Sister Mary Downey (Michelle Phillips); a lounge singer who’s not as good as she thinks she is, Jackie (Rebecca Paige); older Jewish couple Shirley (Sherry Etzel) and Maury (Doug Fowler); disco diva Levora (hilariously played in drag by Jason Solis); reporter Marianne (Sarah Dickerson); casino owner Tony (Mike Hathaway); caterers Chad (Jonathan Garcia) and Scott (Trey West); and Marianne’s twins Ben/Lisa (cleverly played by one young actor, Grayson Oliver).
Professor Ted Scheider (Jacob Rivera-Sanchez) is the brainy guy who warns of the impending tidal wave disaster. His character is cleverly named to recall Roy Scheider, the actor who played a similar character in “Jaws.” It’s fun to think the character Shirley was named in honor of the iconic “Airplane!” joke.
There is a lot of good timing with physical and spoken comedy in this production of “Disaster!” but it’s not consistent. That’s a hard task to live up to considering the fast-flying gags and about three dozen songs, some of which have only one or two lines sung. Think “Reunited” when two characters come together, or “Torn Between Two Lovers” when the nun is conflicted over her loves of God and slot machines. At least 10 of these songs could be ditched (“25 or 6 to 4” and “Muskrat Love” for example) to tighten up the overall script.
Even wayyyyy-over-the-top parody needs some time to breathe so that the best jokes feel somewhat organic, and not shoe-horned into the gag-a-thon. Think of the most brilliant Zucker parody films, such as “Airplane!” “Top Secret” and the “Naked Gun” franchise.
The best actors here (Phillips, Paige, Etzel and Solis) land their funniest bits, but they’re not quite equaled by their castmates, which makes for a production in which fine-tuned moments are smudged by the messiness around them.
The best aspect of OIB’s production is the puppet design by Gabrielle Grafrath, who creates terrifically cartoonish piranha and a witty stylization of bodies being tempest-tossed.
Kevin Brown’s set, Janelle Lutz’s costumes and the wigs by Marcus Lopez and Logan Coley Broker are adequate; and music director Kristin Spires leads a five-member offstage orchestra, with occasional offstage chorus vocals.
There are plenty of truly funny jokes and sight gags, but there are so many attempts at the cheap laugh that even 15 good ones is a small percentage. Still, it’s enough to keep audiences entertained. Sometimes a really good laugh — even of the so-stupid-it’s-funny variety — is all we need.