Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
The cast of DISASTER! | Photo courtesy of Chicago Theatre Workshop
By Bec Willett
What is it you love about the 70s? Flares? Disco? Disaster movies? Think about what it would mean to take all that is kitschy, fun, and joyful about those things and distill it. Imbibing that cocktail is what it’s like to experience Chicago Theatre Workshop’s production of Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick’s hit musical DISASTER!
Set in the 1970s on a non-sailing, tax-loophole of a Casino ship, disaster specialist Ted (Dan Gold) tries to warn the partiers of the impending doom. Bedecked in turtleneck and tweed, Ted is ignored by the cast of classic characters, including disco divas, a lascivious boss, a gambling-addicted nun, and a feminist reporter who wants to have it all. Aptly dressed for the era by costume designer Shelby Brand, they battle disaster after disaster, each situation growing ever more ridiculous.
This isn’t the first time the era has been celebrated on stage in musical form but often such productions feel like thrift store clothing – with a great deal of potential but reeking of tropes and irrelevancy. In contrast, DISASTER!’s use of just the right mix of spoofy appropriation makes it anything but, a perfect balance of celebratory and parodic. Under the deft direction of Ben Baylon, this production coaxes it even further. Baylon’s knack for comedy pervades every element – from the visual jokes in Evan Frank’s scenic design to Megan E. Farley’s choreography to the referential winks in the performances. Britain Gebhardt’s morally-challenged nun Sister Mary Downey is a highlight, her seemingly effortless characterization and timing belying her comedic mastery.
DISASTER! is a jukebox musical, featuring hits like “Knock on Wood,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and “Hot Stuff.” While familiar songs can be appealing to an audience, they also leave little room for error. Unfortunately, in the performance I saw, some of the pitches were off, yet the occurrence was inconsistent, leading me to believe it was a technical issue that will smooth itself out eventually. Thankfully, many voices soared with confidence. Melissa Young’s mellifluous tones are a particular surprise as they sprout from her archetypal Queens character Shirley Summers in a performance that manages to walk the line between parodic and touching.
While DISASTER! may reference disaster movies from the seventies, if you haven’t seen “The Poseidon Adventure” or “Earthquake” there’s no need to worry. Chicago Theatre Workshop’s production is delivered with such joy and comedic skill that, no matter your knowledge, it will leave you giddy with laughter.