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 Theater. A 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.