D.C. Theater Review: ‘Beaches’

Beaches reviews musical

A first-rate premiere production at the Signature Theater is hobbled by a lackluster score and uneven storytelling.

It was a best-selling novel and a profitable film, but Iris Rainer Dart’s tear-jerker, “Beaches,” struggles to find a footing as a compelling musical in its premiere at Arlington, Va.’s Signature TheaterA lackluster score and uneven delivery are among its current shortcomings. Given the project’s significant pedigree, Dart and the rest of her creative team clearly have high expectations for a show perceived as a natural extension of the “Beaches” franchise. Meeting them, though, could take more ingenuity.

Dart partnered with playwright Thom Thomas to create a script from her 1985 novel about the enduring but all too brief relationship between two women of opposite personalities and backgrounds. She tapped young composer David Austin to write the music, personally penned the lyrics, and then turned to Signature, a seasoned incubator of modern musicals, to mount it. From the 1988 Touchstone Pictures film with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, the team incorporated one no-brainer element, the landmark Jeff Silbar/Larry Henley song, “The Wind Beneath My Wings.”

The dramedy opens on a promising note. But elements soon veer off track from there, despite a first rate presentation from Signature a.d. Eric Schaeffer and company.

Derek McLane’s minimalist set is framed floor to ceiling by a packed collection of beach cottage furniture and knick knacks. Schaeffer’s direction emphasizes flow and personality, while Dan Knechtges’ choreography inserts movement and dance at every opportunity. A 10-member orchestra delivers a rich and fulfilling sound.

The 24-member cast, which includes an 11-person ensemble, is led by Alysha Umphress as the tart-tongued thesp Cee Cee and Mara Davi as the freedom-seeking rich kid Bertie. The two pour it all into their respective roles, and their pure soprano voices lift the material to its (limited) potential.

In the seemingly auspicious opening, two adorable youngsters (Pressley Ryan and Brooklyn Shuck) meet on an Atlantic City beach, and the extroverted Cee Cee bursts confidently into song about her future showbiz stardom. One number later they’re in their teens, and another perky pair (Gracie Jones and Maya Brettell) gets to hone the budding friendship further.

Sadly, however, Austin’s melodies and Dart’s lyrics soon settle into an uninspiring formula of nondescript and conversational numbers that do little to propel or amplify the proceedings. The soaring “Wings” number, inserted late in act two, only underscores the mediocrity surrounding it and is certain to be the only tune hummed on exit.

A problem with transitions is also evident, especially in the second act as the show races through a dizzying journey of plot-driven numbers. The trek includes an ultimatum from an angry husband (Matthew Scott) over an impossibly diva-like Cee Cee (“Enough”), followed in quick succession by tunes about maintaining gal pal friendships, enjoying children, and coping with a dying mother and philandering husband. Next comes a jaunty soft-shoe number about the yin and yang of being roommates. Whew.

As for the book, the plot twists and character development that are successfully presented in print and film get perfunctory treatment here. Casualties include one-dimensional husbands Michael (Cliff Samuels) and John (Scott), who deserve better. Even the pivotal relationship between the two principals is unconvincingly unveiled, which will leave some to question the glue that unites this clearly mismatched pair. It also lessens the impact of the tear-jerking finale.

D.C. Theater Review: 'Beaches'

Signature Max Theater, Arlington, Va.; 275 seats; $104 top. Opened, reviewed March 1, 2014. Running time: TWO HOURS 25 MIN.  

Production

A Signature Theater production of a new musical in two acts with book by Iris Rainer Dart and Thoms Thomas, music by David Austin and lyrics by Dart, based on the novel “Beaches” by Dart.

Creative

Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Dan Knechtges. Set, Derek McLane; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Chris Lee; sound, Lane Elms; orchestrations, Lynne Shankel; musical direction, Gabriel Mangiante.

Cast

Mara Davi, Alysha Umphress, Helen Hedman, Cliff Samuels, Matthew Scott, Donna Migliaccio, Michael Bunce.

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  1. Elizabeth says:

    Well, I’m no critic, just someone who likes a good show and Beaches is it! I cannot believe it is a new work. I think Mr. Austin’s score is an easy listen punctuated with memorable (hummable) numbers, like Extraordinary, Normal People and The View from Up Here. Ms. Dart’s lyrics are clever, telling and I think do, actually, lead you through the story quite well. I’m just old fashioned I guess, but I love the “formula” that the Beaches creative team have used to tell this story and the cast is fantastic. If you’re in DC and can, see Beaches at Signature before it closes March 30th!

  2. Jeanne says:

    This is a show about friendship – female friendship – so if the male characters are a little lacking, (a premise that I do not totally accept) in order to focus on the central relationship, it makes perfect artistic sense. I would not go to see “Glengarry Glen Ross” and fret about the lack of women. Simply put, “Beaches” has very little to do with the male species. The book goes a long way in covering over 30 years and is punctuated with humor & pathos. The music for the most part is terrific. “The View From Up Here” has stayed with me and it’s the kind of hummable anthem I predict that we will be hearing for many years to come.

  3. Phyllis says:

    I respectfully disagree with your review. The Beaches SCORE and the women who sing those notes are what I thought really worked about the show! I felt the story was revealed through the music, especially since the 1st act was almost entirely music. I left humming I’m All I Need and can’t get View from Up Here out of my head! People…GO SEE THIS SHOW, you will love it as much as I did!

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