Calling all disco queens. Get out your best polyester frock and fluff up your fro — it’s party time on the Barracuda, the casino riverboat bound for destruction in “Disaster!,” a ridiculously if unevenly funny Broadway musical (by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick) sending up the 1970s cultural zeitgeist. Corralling a catalog of pop and disco hits to tell their spoofy story, the creatives find much to laugh at in the garish fashions, cheesy movies, weepy pop songs and disco-druggy dance tunes of that beloved era.
The opening number, scored to a spirited version of “Hot Stuff,” efficiently introduces the principals and guests boarding this ship of fools. Roger Bart (“The Producers”) is all greasy charm as Tony, the sleazy entrepreneur in the shiny blue tuxedo (designed with a sneer by William Ivey Long) who has evaded all security regulations to launch this doomed enterprise. He’ll pay for that in Act Two, when earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tidal waves tip the Barracuda upside-down, a la “The Poseidon Adventure,” with referential nods to other 1970s disaster movies like “The Towering Inferno,” “Earthquake,” and “Airport.”
The other principals are all stock characters, familiar if not always beloved: Rachel York is Jackie, the beautiful lounge singer who entertains in the cabaret while waiting for Tony to marry her. Her twin son and daughter, both played with wit by Baylee Littrell, are along for the ride. Another singer (Lacretta Nicole) is in big voice, but has little to do.
The male romantic interest is played by swoony Adam Pascal, who here returns (in gorgeous voice) to the same theater where he did serious time as the original lead of “Rent.” Although his comic sidekick and fellow waiter (Max Crumm) is devoid of charm, Pascal is nicely partnered by the soprano Kerry Butler (of fond “Xanadu” memory).
To Pascal and Butler fall the emotionally overwrought pop love songs like “Feelings.” Pascal gets a great laugh by falling to his knees and letting it rip in “Without You,” and “I’d Really Like to See You Tonight” seems like the appropriate duet for two lovers going down with the ship.
The mandatory older couple having one last fling — played for both laughs and tears, naturally — are made flesh by those total pros, cute-as-a-bug Kevin Chamberlin and that terrific trooper, Faith Prince. This well-matched pair even bring touching sincerity to their theme song “Still the One.”
The big downer in this festive company is Professor Ted Scheider (Rudetsky), a scientist who delivers the alarming information that the casino is docked over a fault line that’s due to blow. Or something. Rudetsky is appropriately annoying as this nutty professor, but he doesn’t measure up when the character tries to play hero.
Although not particularly glitzy or glam, this is a good cast that knows the comic ropes — and then some, in the special case of Jennifer Simard, who shows great comic chops as a nun with a secret gambling fixation. “Holy Mary Mother of God,” she exclaims when she gets a load of the one-armed bandit on the Barracuda. “That’s not just any slot machine — that’s the new ‘Hawaii Five-O’ themed TX 420. They’re made in Monaco and they’re top of the line.” And despite her pledge (“I never had a gambling addiction!”), she falls to her knees and worships this golden idol. (Cue the “Hawaii 5-0 Theme”)
The fun is contagious as long as we’re following these eccentric musical cues for plot and character development. Helen Reddy (“I Am Woman”) and Carly Simon (“That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”) vocalize the dilemma of Butler’s proper 1970s girl, torn between liberation and the urge to marry. And Simard relishes the icky song (“Torn Between Two Lovers”) that captures the little nun’s spiritual struggle between the ecstasy of faith and the thrill of gambling. (“Never Can Say Goodbye” pretty much settles that conflict.)
The second act isn’t as much fun for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the goofy characters make way for the even goofier plot about the natural disasters that sink the Barracuda. That means fewer comic juxtapositions of screwball songs and silly people. Some of the characters give it a shot, like Tony singing “Don’t Cry Out Loud” while being nibbled by sharks. But “Sky High” — as in “you’ve blown it all sky high” — is about the best the creatives can come up with in this plot-heavy act.
At the helm, Plotnick manages the traffic well enough, and the actors are game, bless their hearts. But ultimately, 70s disaster movies were far more ludicrous than anything on this stage.
Editor’s note: The original post has been edited to correct an error inserted during the editorial process.