Monday, July 06, 2015

Almost a Shore Bette: 'Beaches' Musical Has Plenty of Wind Beneath Its Wings as it Aims to Go From Oakbrook to Broadway -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a new musical
Drury Lane Theater, Oakbrook Terrace, IL
Thru August 16

For many a year, Chicago has hosted "out-of-town tryout" productions of musicals making their way to Broadway, or at least hoping to.

Even just since I started paying attention at the dawn of this century, Loop theaters have hosted pre-Broadway runs of future Best Musical Tony Award winners The Producers, Spamalot and Kinky Boots, nominees Sweet Smell of Success, Movin' Out, Light in the Piazza and Bring It On, as well as The Last Ship, The Addams Family, All Shook UpThe Pirate Queen and others.

The last couple of shows mentioned weren't very good, and in my estimation (and others') neither were Amazing Grace--which recently began a Broadway run--nor First Wives Club, theoretically needing substantial alterations before heading to the Great White Way.

But based on having seen just its first preview performance, let alone the strong reviews it garnered after officially opening, On Your Feet--which concluded its Chicago run on Sunday--should fare quite well critically and commercially as it brings the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan to New York this fall.

Whereas I felt that show eclipsed most "jukebox musicals" that revolve existing songs of a famous artist (or genre, record label, etc.), so too did I find that the new stage adaptation of Beaches outshines numerous examples of the other overdone "let's take it to Broadway" staple: new musicals based on beloved movies.

Adding to the noteworthiness--and there are several worthy notes thanks to a fine score by composer David Austin--is that this pre-Broadway tryout isn't taking place in a downtown theater under the auspices of Broadway in Chicago, but at Drury Lane Oakbrook.

Though Beaches isn't quite a world premiere work commissioned by DRO--this is actually a second tryout after a staging last year at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, whose artistic director Eric Schaeffer also helms the show here--it is an admirable venture for the 800-seat suburban house that has upped its game in recent years.

Given the quality of the source material and productions of the past two Drury Lane shows, West Side Story and Billy Elliot, it is impressive for Beaches just to be in the same sentence in terms of satisfying entertainment. Even if it isn't quite as astonishing at this point, there definitely is something thrilling about seeing a good-to-great new musical in its gestation period.
Although "The Wind Beneath My Wings" burrowed into my subconscious years ago, I didn't arrive in Oakbrook Terrace with much in the way of familiarity or affinity. I've seen the movie Beaches, but so long ago I only really remembered that it involves Bette Midler, the famous song, somebody dying and considerable amounts of crying--perhaps among audience members as much as characters.

So I was none too bothered by any deviations the musical took from the movie, especially as I feel that stage versions often don't stand out individually enough within a rather different art form.

And from what I've read, the musical Beaches is more so based on the novel by Iris Rainer Dart--who co-wrote the show's book with Thom Thomas and unilaterally penned the lyrics to Austin's music--than the movie, whose screenplay Dart did not write.

Differing from the movie--based on the Wikipedia synopsis--the musical doesn't begin by soon employing a flashback, it simply starts in the past, with Cecilia "Cee Cee" Bloom and Bertie White meeting in Atlantic City as kids, wonderfully played at DRO by Presley Ryan and Brooklyn Shuck, respectively.

Adorned with a mass of vibrant red curls, Ryan is particularly impressive as Little Cee Cee sings "What a Star Looks Like" before the girls give way to older girls (Samantha Pauley, Oliva Renteria) and then--just a few scenes in--to the adult Cee Cee (a terrific Shoshanna Bean, who starred in Wicked on Broadway) and Bertie (Whitney Bashor, also with Broadway credits and quite good here).

Other than Bean's powerfully rendered late-second act take on "The Wind Beneath My Wings"--which would have worked even better as the show-closer--all of the songs are new. That most were quite strong on a first hearing is all the more impressive for this being the first major musical David Austin has composed, with Dart--much more known as a novelist and TV writer--writing rather deft lyrics.

With its story of a multi-decade friendship among two women--played in the movie by Midler and Barbara Hershey, whose character was renamed Hillary--Beaches should offer a storyline that is compelling across generations, yet theoretically those with a certain maturity will best appreciate its dependence on hand-written letters to substantively drive the narrative.

The letters, between Cee Cee and Bertie--for whom dramatic license seemingly rescinds telephone privileges at some pivotal moments--also serve as one of the two primary visual motifs in the set design, with the other being, appropriately, beaches & shorelines. (Derek McLane is credited as Scenic Consultant)

Especially in the first act, when singer/actress Cee Cee and costume designer Bertie mostly amiably meet, grow up, begin and then develop their careers (though the latter's remains rather vague in terms of progression and success), there is relatively little in terms of dramatic tension.

Even a fight over a mutual love interest named John Perry--played by Travis Taylor, the best male vocalist in Chicagoland theater, who may never come back from Broadway if this show takes him there--is deferred until it can bring us to intermission with some punch.

But I've long felt that the quality of the songwriting is what differentiates musicals--and especially screen-to-stage adaptations--that delight (HairsprayKinky Boots, Legally Blonde, A Christmas Story) from those that don't (Big Fish, Catch Me if You Can, Ghost). And with positive vibes and catchy songs ("Extraordinary," "This is the Life," "My Perfect Wedding"), Beaches just feels good from the get-go.

I felt much the same way about On Your Feet and though I thought that show was a bit better--or maybe just more vibrant--midway through Beaches I was imagining @@@@1/2 may well be in order.

Yet while Act 2 involves more of the way of emotional crises involving husbands, health and more--if you know the movie/book I needn't tell you the specifics and if you don't I shouldn't--I also felt that the show wound up extending 20-30 minutes longer than it needed to.

The tunes stayed strong for the most part, with "What I Should Have Told Her" being a standout Cee Cee/Bertie duet, and "Normal People" full of witty lyrics.

But "The Wind Beneath My Wings" seemed oddly shoehorned in after a strange segue, with a lesser new song expressing much the same sentiments--called "Out There" and likewise sung by Cee Cee--ending the show without the same force that "Wind" would have provided.

That this followed a depressing denouement that extended way longer than it needed just served to detract from an otherwise stellar show--and admirable enterprise--that has obviously had Dart, Schaeffer and others working for years to figure out what works best.

Yes, I realize that many drawn to a long-known title like Beaches will expect--and even want--the sappy stuff in abundance, so I don't mean to cast too derisive a dry-eyed damper on the waterworks festivities.

But while being a bit maudlin is territorially forgivable, I found the prolonged ending somewhat dramatically suspect, especially as even for those without pre-existing familiarity, there was no sense of surprise with where we were headed.

And kept going. And going.

So it isn't quite perfect and still has some room for refinement, but nonetheless for the most part, this night at the Beaches came as a breath of fresh musical air.

Assuming the right adjustments, even without the Divine Miss M herself--interestingly, Dart has professed to have written the Cee Cee part based on Cher--it should be a shore Bette on Broadway. 

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