Embrace the “Disaster!” at Comtra Theatre

In a land before Land Before Time, before O.J. Simpson led the LAPD on a sluggishly slow chase in a white bronco and instead ran headfirst into Towering Infernos as they burst into flame and collapsed, disaster films dominated a subculture and captured a strange desire to watch hairy-chested men seduce glitter-adorned women in the face of imminent and absurd peril. Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, Airport and the aforementioned O.J. Simpson project, The Towering Inferno were the most notable of a proverbial deluge of movies that pitted classic 1970s horniness against some strange natural or man-made calamity—be it volcano, ship sinking, tidal wave, bomb, plummeting plane, and so on. It was camp. It was chaos. It was also, peculiarly musical, with the films often producing some of the most saccharine and infectious bops of the era (I mean, there’s got to be “The Morning After,†amirite?).

The doomed souls of “Disaster”

In their latest musical venture, Comtra Theatre channels and satirizes this unique era of catastrophe-centric entertainment with Disaster: A 70s Disaster Movie…Musical! Created by Seth Rudetsky and Drew Geraci for a successful Off-Broadway run beginning in 2011, Disaster… features a group of unwitting and witless strangers, and one perpetually-ignored expert, who cross paths on a colossal casino-on-the-sea on the exact day an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude is about to be triggered. Chad is lovesick and a failed game designer, so convinces his buddy Scott to join him on the casino cruise ship as a cocktail waiter; Marianne is dogged journalist trying to crack a story on a secret cache in the captain’s quarter of the ship (oh, and she may have some times to Chad); Jackie, joined by her twin children Ben and Lisa, is a man-crazy, over-exuberant lounge singer performing in the floating casino; Tony is sleazy, egotistical, utterly incompetent manager of the casino-at-sea (that Jackie believes will be her next husband); Shirley and Maury are a goofily in love, newly retired married couple with a secret who pay for fragile, God-fearing nun Sister Mary Downy to join them on the ship; Levora Verona is a washed-up, former hit singer with only her dog and a dream, setting sail to maybe win a fortune; and Ted is the dedicated earthquake specialist who might be the only one who can save them all. The various foibles, escapades, romances and, of course, overtures of disaster and tragedy are punctuated by some of the most irresistible hits of the era—think Harry Nilsson, Lionel Richie, Eddie Floyd, England Dan & John Ford Coley, Barry Manilow, Eddie Money, etc.—that are incorporated into the story a la jukebox musical style. It’s as madcap as you’re imagining, and probably even more so—and that’s a good thing.

Comtra Theatre is one of those companies that knows its strengths and how to play to them, and features a fairly consistent core lineup of performers that work facilitate the relatively seamless running of the Comtra machine. Though there was an undeniably rocky start to Saturday evening’s performance of Disaster due mostly to some technical hiccups, the show picked up momentum and was irrepressible for the entire second act. Director Clay Glenny demonstrates his familiarity with and fondness for both his cast and his source material, joining the two entities commendably. Glenny deserves another shout-out along with Jessica Boothe for their work on props that can only be described as wonderfully, wonderfully camp, and absolutely befitting of the musical’s ludicrousness.

Chad (Ian C. Olson) and Marianne (Marybeth Herman) realize how screwed they are

In an all-around solid ensemble cast, there are some standouts that are unsurprising to anyone familiar with a Comtra production. As the hapless Chad, Ian C. Olson is, as always, unmatched in exuberance and presence, delivering some of the most perfectly-timed comedic moments throughout the show, including a brilliantly understated delivery of “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight,†and hilariously gut-wrenching take on “Without You.†Kristin Pacelli, as washed-up singer Levora Verona looking for a gambling jackpot aboard the floating casino, is stunning not only in her vocal prowess (which is spectacular), but in her overall superbly nuanced performance. TrishaLee Hutchison is superb as ever as hopeless lounge performer Jackie, and Emilia Garcia does a wonderful job taking on the hilariously challenging roles of both her twins, Ben and Lisa. Disaster’s hopelessly devoted married goobers, Shirley and Maury, are played with expected aplomb by Tracy Rudzinksi and Michael Goffus, respectively. Rudzinski is easily tied for top scene-stealer in a show of excellent performers, and her “Fifth of Beethoven†scene is among one of my favorite moments in recent theatre-going memory. And, finally, tied for top scene-stealer is of course Victoria Buchtan as Sister Mary Downy, who consistently proves to be in a league of her own, but truly outdoes herself comedically, physically, and often vocally as the easily-toppled (literally, she’s very frail), guitar-plucking nun with a dirty little secret.

Shirley (Tracy Rudzinski) for the toe-tappin’ win

Disaster is enthusiastically scored by Conductor Carmen LoPresti (who doubles as the show’s Vocal Director) and a robust band comprised of Kaitlynn Sinclair (Keyboard), John Beckas (Guitar), Zac Podolinsky (Bass), Brandon Boothe (Drums) and Nic Elliott (Trumpet). Their live accompaniment was deft in their ability to facilely maneuver between iconic hits of yesteryear, and added another lay of joy to the wild show.

Though the real satire of Disaster will be enjoyed by those who lived through the 70s or have an active working memory of all the strange movies and songs that made it great (like I unabashedly do), Comtra’s production is so well-performed and engaging that it will charm those entirely unfamiliar with the era and genre (I think they’re just called Gen Z, right?). Disaster is a supremely entertaining production, and the perfect distraction from the impending pandemic disaster we all now face.


Disaster runs at Comtra Theatre through March 15. For tickets and more information, visit their site.


Photography Credit: Cody Larko except Image 1 by Beth Barbis Photography


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