Review: Barn Theatre’s ‘Disaster!’ is anything but

If there’s one thing anyone who’s ever been to The Barn Theatre in Augusta knows, it’s that they know how to do a killer rock musical. And anyone who’s had the good fortune of seeing shows there this summer certainly knows the 72nd season company of Michigan’s oldest resident summer stock theater is well-versed in brilliant, campy comedy.

Therefore, it’s entirely likely that The Barn is the best possible place to see “Disaster!,” Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick’s hysterical satire of 1970s disaster films such as “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Airport 1975” and “Earthquake,” shot through with the best and worst ’70s hits that can’t help but make you smile if not laugh so hard you cry with the way they move the plot forward.

This jukebox musical made its Broadway debut in 2016, and it’s effective in the way the songs indeed weave the narrative together, much like “Rock of Ages” does with ’80s hair band tunes and “Mamma Mia!” does with ABBA’s discography. But on a floating casino threatened by earthquakes, tidal waves and literal disco infernos, Disaster! is utterly ridiculous and delightful, and under Patrick Hunter’s excellent direction, this terrifically talented cast and design team captures our imaginations and plays it to the hilt.

It’s 1979 Manhattan, and a kooky cast of characters convenes to gamble and dance on opening night of The Barracuda, New York’s first floating casino. Run by a dodgy entrepreneur, the building is not only not up to code, but it’s also built on several fault lines, which means the vibrations from each step of The Hustle, The Bump, and The Disco Finger could trigger an earthquake, or in the words of “noted disaster expert” who makes his way onboard, “every dance move brings you closer to death.” Calamity of every ilk ensues in a wonderful, stupidly gruesome, campy riot.

Hans Friedrichs is a stitch as the deadpan professor, Ted Scheider, who insists “the doctor says humorless is not the same as crazy.” And he’s but one of an entire cast of actors who creates uniquely bold and hilarious archetypal characters with every posture, every gesture, every note, and every step.

There’s Jamey Grisham’s boyish heartthrob Chad, who pines for Rachel Mahar’s regretful, misguided feminist reporter Marianne; and the charming Brooklyn couple played by Charlie King and Penelope Alex who are facing her mysterious and terminal illness that causes her to devolve into spastic pelvic thrusts, twitchy eyes, and a terrifically inappropriate case of Tourette’s. (Alex leads a Morse Code tap dance that is among many amazing dance numbers choreographed by Kasady Kwiatkowska, who also doubles as Sister Mary Downy, a closeted gambling addict who appears to make sweet love to a slot machine in a mutual seduction sprung to life in “Never Can Say Goodbye.”)

Johnnie Carpathios is deliciously sleazy as negligent casino owner Tony; Samantha Rickard nearly brings down the house as sexy (and a little bit country) lounge singer Jackie with Braeden Davis as her twins Ben and Lisa in a very silly staging of “When Will I Be Loved.” And Abbey Brooks shines as has-been disco star Levora Verona, particularly in “Come to Me.”

It all comes to a head on Steven Lee Burright’s set that serves not only as a glittering discotheque and a casino, but also, with the help of strobe and other lighting effects from Mike McShane, props by Sam Rudy, and specialty props by Michael Wilson Morgan, tips upside down, goes underwater, shakes and quakes, and creates the conditions for shark and piranha attacks and a fornicating rat infestation.

Musical Director Brent J. Decker and his fantastic five-piece band make all those funny, sexy, slippery ’70s hits — from Donna Summer to Gloria Gaynor to Linda Ronstadt to Chicago to all those one-hit wonders whose performers’ names no one remembers — as good, if not better, than the originals, particularly with the astounding voices and interpretation of the cast members.

And the era is additionally captured in all its silly glory with wigs by Crysta Menefee Gsellman and Lauren Alexandra’s costumes, from a powder blue frilly-fronted tuxedo to tiny, shiny gym shorts, to flowing, feathery frocks.

Sadly, “Disaster!” is the last show of the season, but it’s so funny, so fun, and capitalizes so thoroughly on the tremendous talents of this year’s resident company, it might just tide us over as the cherry on top of a spectacular season until next summer rolls around.

Barn Theatre
Aug. 28-Sept. 2