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Beaches – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 4, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Photo of Presley Ryan as Little Cee Cee by Margot I. Schulman.

Photo of Presley Ryan as Little Cee Cee by Margot I. Schulman.

Signature Theatre’s world premiere of Beaches opens with a bang.  Presley Ryan, fresh off her appearance on NBC’s The Sound of Music with Carrie Underwood plays Little Cee Cee, the precocious child who would become a big star.  Ryan gets the show off to a rollicking start with “What A Star” performing an electrifying song-and-dance routine worthy of Shirley Temple in her heyday.  Ryan’s got mega-watt energy and sass galore and the show hits the heights whenever she’s on stage.

Beaches is based on the original novel by Iris Rainer Dart who also has written the lyrics to the two-and-a-half hour-long musical – – collaborating with Composer David Austin and scriptwriter Thom Thomas to bring her book to the stage.  As you may recall the film version starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey was a huge hit and its anthem “The Wind Beneath My Wings” written by Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley (and the only song taken from the movie) took Midler’s career into the stratosphere.

That this interpretation is overly long, poorly written with awkwardly contrived rhymes and disjointed character segues, is only partially the fault of the writers, but ultimately there is just too much crammed into one show.  It is most assuredly not the fault of the performers whose singing and acting is flawless, nor Scenic Designer Derek McLane’s set – – a spectacular composition of period furniture rising to the rafters, nor is it Costume Designer Frank Labovitz’s brilliant costumes from the 50’s to the hippie era through Cee Cee’s show biz career and disco outfits, to Bertie’s tailored wrap-dresses.  Neither is it the fault of the story, a tender tale of true friendship between two women who couldn’t be more dissimilar yet who stick together through thick and thin.

Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee and Matthew Scott as John Perry -Photo credit Margot I. Schulman

Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee and Matthew Scott as John Perry -Photo credit Margot I. Schulman

Cee Cee and Bertie become best friends when young Bertie (played by Brooklyn Shuck) is lost on the beach at Atlantic City.  The foul-mouthed Cee Cee “If ya call me Cecelia I’ll punch you in the mouth!” convinces Bertie, against her mother’s strict orders, to dip her toes into the sea.  And thus their bond is forged only to have it tested when Cee Cee brings the sheltered Bertie into the fast and furious world of show business.

Six different actresses reflect the three stages from childhood to teenage to womanhood.  And although Beaches is set in locations from New Jersey’s Atlantic City and Beach Haven to Florida’s Sarasota and Miami to California’s Carmel, oddly the production uses neither sand nor water, though there is one early scene in which mottled lighting at the edge of the stage is meant to signify water.

Photo of Mara Davi as Bertie (left), Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee (right) and Beaches ensemble by Margot I. Schulman.

Photo of Mara Davi as Bertie (left), Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee (right) and Beaches ensemble by Margot I. Schulman.

Things begin to get complicated when boyfriends appear on the scene and jealousies and betrayals threaten to destroy the women’s friendship.  But worse still are the show’s lackluster lyrics – – “Let’s be us again”, “Children they’ll make us new” and “a new life for me and my man” – – that are even more destructive.  Some of the show’s twenty-four songs are as unquotable as they are strained as in the song “Normal People” when the women describe each other as “a Jew and a goy, a princess and a goddess” and each wishes the other had a “_ _ _ _”, a slang term that rhymes with stick.  I thought I was watching a bad episode of the cancelled TV show Smash.  And not to be a spoiler, but in this story Bertie comes back to life in an eye-roller of a duet, “God Gave You Me”, a ballad that stretches all credulity.

Still there is some fine acting and singing most especially from Alysha Umphress as the grown-up Cee Cee whose exceptionally beautiful voice and arresting presence are memorable.  Notwithstanding the terrific cast, Beaches will have a lot to work out before it sees the footlights of Broadway.

Through March 30th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

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