Review | “Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical” at Hell in a Handbag Productions

Review | “Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical” at Hell in a Handbag Productions

Pictured (left to right): Frankie Leo Bennett, Shane Roberie, Elizabeth Lesinski, Katherine Bellantone, Stevie Love, Nicky Mendelson, Scott Sawa, Tommy Bullington, David Lipschutz, and Michael S. Miller.Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios.

By Elizabeth Ellis

The 1970’s brought us a variety of weird cultural phenomena: pet rocks, streaking, disco, and a new genre of film known as disaster films. Movies such as Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, Airport, and The Poseidon Adventure all made us gasp and scream and cower, and wonder if we could survive such frightening scenarios (particularly if the disasters happened with all-star casts). In Hell in a Handbag’s superb second remount of their successful 2002 campy musical spectacular POSEIDON: AN UPSIDE DOWN MUSICAL at the Edge Theatre, we not only know we would survive, but we would muster all our pluck and gumption in our climb to life all the way up to the bottom.

The 1972 film boasted such luminaries as Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson, Red Buttons, and Stella Stevens, and the Handbag cast not only honors them, but pokes gentle fun at characters that now seem a bit trite. It’s New Year’s Eve 1972, and the aging luxury ship Poseidon is making its final voyage from New York to Athens. An undersea earthquake (potential disaster crossover opportunity missed!) near Greece triggers a tsunami, and a towering wall of water speeds toward the Poseidon, capsizing it and causing massive internal damage. A small and motley group of surviving passengers, led by Reverend Scott, navigate through water, mangled metal, fire, and explosions up towards the hull of the ship, where the few surviving members of the group are rescued. The musical’s script employs a clever and effective device: a group of friends, all die-hard fans of the film, gather on New Year’s Eve to watch the film (the action onstage) and comment on it, much as the audiences do in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This gives the audience the feeling not only that we’re watching a re-enactment of the film, but the interplay between the group of friends.

Leading the group is the renegade Reverend Scott, (the Gene Hackman character played with pure 70’s bravado by David Lipschutz). Contesting him are the hardboiled New York cop Mike Rogo (the macho tough guy Shane Roberie in the Ernest Borgnine role) and his wife, the tough and beautiful ex-prostitute Linda (the excellent Elizabeth Lesinski in the Stella Stevens role, with two of the best songs of the night: “Just Panties” and “Bad Girls Need Love Too”). Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters made indelible impressions as Manny and Belle Rosen, and Michael S. MIller and Tommy Bullington portray them perfectly (Belle’s piece “In the Water I’m a Very Skinny Lady” is comedic gold). Mr. Martin, the bachelor haberdasher played by Red Buttons, is successfully reimagined as a closeted gay man by Scott Sawa. The teenage brother and sister Robin and Susan Shelby (the hilarious Frankie Leo Bennett and Katherine Bellantone) both give terrific teenager hormone-affected performances: Robin has a slightly too close relationship with the unseen Charlie the third engineer, and Susan can barely keep her hot pants on when the Reverend is nearby. Rounding out the film cast is Acres the waiter (the wonderful Nicky Mendelson in the Roddy McDowall role). The group of film fans, (Brittney Brown, Sydney Genco, Courtney Dane Mize, Elissa Newcorn, Maiko Terazawa, Josh Kemper, Marc Prince, and Patrick Stengle) led by the superb Caitlin Jackson show how films mean more to many of us than just escapism and entertainment, and the first song of the night, “Movies Have the Power,” sets the tone for a production that both honors and laughs with a classic film.

David Cerda, Handbag’s artistic director and creator of this piece, has achieved a wonderful balance between staying true to the original Poseidon story and characters, the fans and their devotion to the film, and focusing on much of the film’s comedic potential that now, 47 years in, can be mined for all its humor. He has also placed much of the responsibility of the show in the more than capable hands of his terrific director, Derek Van Barham. It would be very easy to let a show like this slide into sloppy silliness, half-spoken-half-sung songs, and broad lazy jokes, but Van Barham avoids all those tendencies. He gives the performers enough space to play but keeps the production tight and moving at just a fast enough pace, and seamlessly incorporates the musical numbers. The set, designed by Christopher Roton, is a wonder of scaffolding and set pieces, and the fascinating action involved in turning the Poseidon upside down merits special attention, because it’s an amazing work of staging. Andrew Milliken’s music direction is top-notch, and he and his musicians deserve acknowledgment for performing under scaffolding while so much action is happening in front and on top of them. Excellence also comes by Beth Laske-Miller’s costumes, Sydney Genco’s makeup, and Keith Ryan’s wig designs, creating a spectacle of color and dimension, and Danny Rockett’s sound with Cat Wilson’s lighting make to show move easily and beautifully from celebratory to spooky.

POSEIDON! AN UPSIDE DOWN MUSICAL is a fantastic musical that packs a lot into its two-plus hours, and provides a beautiful showcase for some of our city’s best and most versatile performers. You may make this a fun and fabulous new New Year’s Eve tradition.

POSEIDON! AN UPSDIE DOWN MUSICAL runs through April 28. For more information visit

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.