I’ve gotta hand it to Signature Theatre – they sure know how to put on a show.
Going to see a musical at the Shirlington company’s home will offer you certain guarantees. Cleanliness. Polish. A cadre of the region’s best musical theatre talent at every rung of the ladder. A few shiny gems of the broader theatrical community’s talent pool, veterans and rising stars alike. A chance to see new works, underperformed classics, and innovative takes of popular shows.
So it is with Beaches, perhaps the most finely calibrated of Signature’s recent forays into world premieres.
Worth noting – I’ve never read the novel Beaches, nor have I seen the iconic Bette Midler film. I even debated, endlessly, whether or not I should do so before heading to the show. When such a pop culture monolith heads into a new medium, you have to assume that it will primarily be targeted toward the folks who know it by heart. Would I be sitting among three generations of gal-pals, clutching their Signature-branded hankies and nose-blowing while I looked around going, “Oh, I guess that was a thing that meant something?”
In the end, I’m glad I didn’t watch or read, because, wouldn’t you know it, Beaches is actually a fairly compelling story, with legitimate appeal to the first-time watcher. Turns out there was a reason it became such an icon, and the stage show sells that remarkably well.
It all starts from the moment you walk into the theatre and take in Derek McLane’s evocative set, essentially a proscenium of antique furniture. Memories and history, that’s your world right there, sold from sighting number one. Later on, this monochromatic beauty will be colored with the many, many, MANY colors of lighting designer Chris Lee, and swarmed by four decades and five states worth of characterizing costumes by Frank Labovitz. And since the MAX is the smallest “big” venue in town, what you hear will be amplified juuust enough by Lane Elms’ sound design, so that singer and hidden orchestra stay balanced and sound refreshingly natural, without blowing out your eardrums.
Gabriel Mangiante’s orchestral leadership definitely plays its part in that great balance, of course. The ten piece ensemble gets points for versatility, too, as it handles a wide variety of styles in the (mostly) brand-new score by David Austin and Iris Rainer Dart, who wrote the book, and also the novel.
Noticing that something must have been hard to adapt shouldn’t be a compliment if you can tell, but I admire the punctuality and cleanliness (there’s that word again) of the show’s structure, and the economy with which everything moves. Occasionally this can be a fault, since a plot point will whizz by and lead me to go, “wait does that also mean…hey, ok, off we go into the next decade!” But the prioritization is strong, so ultimately the things I would get hung up on prove to not be so important to the ongoing story, which, as I said before, is told well here.
Directing a new work is a very specific duty, so Eric Shaeffer certainly deserves a lot of credit for that clarity. Scenes clip along, new locations get established fast, attractive pictures get built. Beaches is a lovely sight to see.
And goodness gracious is Beaches well cast.
Once again par for the course at the Sig, Mr. Shaeffer shows his knack for slotting powerful performers into perfect slots. Let’s start with the kids: lovely, subdued Brooklyn Shuck as Little Bertie, instantly earning our sympathy, and Presley Ryan as Little Cee Cee, who can play big without playing hammy. Lord knows the show tempts her with a big Star Search-ready opening number, but she stays disciplined and economical with it, which only makes her shine the brighter. To round out the kid ranks, we have Svea Johnson as Nina, who plays a pivotal dramatic role later in the show (no spoilers for the other seven of you who are going in cold), and proves up to her heavy task.
Eventually Bertie and Cee Cee grow up, of course, into the “medium” versions of Maya Brettell and Gracie Jones. Both accomplish the hard work of tying the cute kids we watched at the start into the adult stars to follow, and make us believe these are all the same person. Shaeffer’s casting hit the mark, and those cast delivered the goods.
Peppering the rest of the show are a host of ensemble members and character actors doling out fun little character beats. From Davis Hasty’s horndog dancer to Dan Manning’s parade of battle-scarred showbiz professionals to Bayla Whitten’s emotionally rich work with just a handful of lines, there’s a lot of life in those ranks. And everyone dances well, too, with sharp, plosive moves by choreographer Dan Knechtges.
On the supporting tier, Donna Migliaccio is right in her element, enjoying the brassy Mama Leona Bloom role and its myriad one-liners. Helen Hedman, meanwhile, plays the less-seen mom to Bertie who, in her few scenes, is quite complete and well-dimensionalized, which is crucial to her important role in the story.
The gentlemen, too, earn their keep, with Cliff Samuels’ Michael landing in just the right zone of ambiguity. Again, no spoilers, but suffice to say that it serves the play that you’re never quite sure what to think of him, yet never ready to write him off completely, either. Matthew Scott, meanwhile, is quite the charming presence, and definitely keeps his John in range of our sympathy for the duration of his role in the show. Rounding out our supporting men is Michael Bunce, so adorable as Arthur, you just wish he had even more to do.
Alright, is that everybody? Can we get to Bertie and Cee Cee now? Alright, good.
We’ll start with Alysha Umphress, playing “the Bette Midler role”, Cee Cee. It’s a testament to Ms. Umphress that her star power is wholly her own, despite so much shared DNA between this character and Midler’s iconic persona. Umphress has a hell of a voice, loads of verve, and a pretty affecting vulnerable side, too. She can speak volumes with her stillness, and lets you see right into this woman’s wounded soul. Though make no mistake, Cee Cee is the strong anvil upon which Bertie is forged.
It’s up to Mara Davi, then, as Bertie, to evolve quite a lot over the show, and boy does she. Umphress has “the star” role, while Davi’s is “the actress.” She impresses deeply, showing a stunning amount of transformation and range. From goofing around to quieter dramatic beats, from strength to pettiness, from meek to chic, there isn’t a side of this changing woman’s gamut that Davi doesn’t hit. This also includes the difficult task of subtle aging.
Together, these women have tons of chemistry, which you’d certainly hope for in a five-hankie salute to the eternal bonds of female friendship. Their chemistry even manages to shine in the montage numbers where the women are separated but corresponding. Actually, between Davi, Umphress, Shaeffer, Knechtges, Mangiante, Austin, and Rainer Dart, these montages manage to become highlights of the show. I almost wished there were more!
Closes March 30, 2014
4200 Campbell Avenue
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $29 – $84
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Since it’s a world premiere, I might as well share my constructive point-of-view, too. Look – I get that it’s Beaches, and that “Wind Beneath My Wings” HAS to be in it. The audience would riot if it wasn’t. But…I dunno, I guess I wish it could have actually been a legitimate musical theatre number, where we let Cee Cee actually sing it to Bertie in a real scene. Lord knows there are plenty of opportunities. Umphress sure performed it well, but I think it could have felt more integrated.
As for the much-hyped weepies of Beaches…yes, they do sell tissues in the lobby. Yes, certain people might need them. I did, but only because I got dust in my eye. Plus, y’know, I’ve had this cold I’ve been fighting all winter…Polar Vortexes, guys, amiright? And onions! There were onions being chopped in the row in front of me, for, I dunno, some reason.
So yes, everyone, I heartily recommend checking out Beaches. Bring your best friend. In the lingo of the internet, you’ll get “all the feels. All of them!”
Beaches . Book by Iris Rainer Dart and Thom Thomas . Music by David Austin . Lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart . Based on the novel Beaches by Iris Rainer Dart . Directed by Eric Schaeffer . Featuring Mara Davi, Alysha Umphress, Clifton Samuels, Matthew Scott, Donna Migliaccio, Helen Hedman, Brooklyn Shuck, Maya Brettell, Gracie Jones, Svea Johnson, Michael Bunce, Bayla Whitten, Jamie Eacker, Heather Brorsen, Dan Manning, Ryah Nixon and Robbie Roby .
Choreography by Dan Knechtges . Musical Supervisor Mary Mitchell Campbell . Orchestrations by Lynne Shankel . Scenic Design by Derek McLane . Costume Design by Frank Labovitz . Lighting Design by Chris Lee . Sound Design by Lane Elms . Production Stage Manager Kerry Epstein assisted by Stephanie Junkin . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by John Dellaporta.
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