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Signature Theatre Beaches

By • Mar 5th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Beaches
Signature Theatre: (Info) (Web)
Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
Through March 30th
2:30 with intermission
$29-$93 (Plus Significant Fees)
Reviewed March 2nd, 2014

I brushed aside the movie version of “Beaches” that was playing in my head when I walked in to see the world premiere musical Beaches, now at Signature Theatre. The musical is upon based upon the 1985 novel by Iris Rainer Dart. The new musical’s book is by Dart and Thom Thomas. Ms. Dart also wrote the lyrics.

I made sure to silence Bette Midler’s 1988 hit “The Wind Beneath My Wings” in my head as well. I wanted to clearly see and hear what was before me at this production.

As always before a show, I read the program notes to see what hints they gave of the playwright’s or director’s thinking behind the production. Dart wrote of a friend’s comment from decades before; “When one of us dies, I hope it’s me first because I wouldn’t want to live on a planet that didn’t have you on it.” She mentioned a statistic she had located that “a large percentage of women said if they were ever forced to choose, they would give up their husbands before they would give up their best friends.” Ok.

Dart added, “I think the reason that Beaches affects people is because when our time comes, all of us would want to be able to exit laughing with our best friend beside us. Go home and call your best friend tonight.” Ok, fair enough.

I wondered, was I to be a stranger in a strange land?

With that said let’s move on to the actual production of Beaches. First, the musical is affectionately directed by Signature Theatre‚Äôs Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer. He has a soft hand in bringing this diary of two friends to an audience. The creative team includes Ms. Dart (book & lyrics), Thom Thomas (book) and David Austin (music). The score has about twenty new songs. The new music by Austin with lyrics by Dart are all one could ask for. The score is mood-setting with each song reminiscent of a certain time, adding emotional value to the spoken words of the script. There is, of course, a performance of “The Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Beaches follows the thirty-year, complicated friendship of two women, Bertie and Cee Cee, who met as little girls on the beach of Atlantic City, NJ in 1951. In the days before social media, they became the 1950’s equivalent of digital BFF’s: letter writing by hand pen-pals. Their deep friendship perseveres through many a bump. They remain constant friends, well mostly, through the perils of growing up with dysfunctional parents, personal hardships, work choices, marriages, divorces, children, infinite differences in their personalities and the ultimate ending all face in life.

The two fictional friends are played by Alysha Umpress as Cee Cee and Mara Davi as Bertie. They are as good as gold in their acting prowess. Their vocal talents simply shine. Matthew Scott portrays Cee Cee’s husband with felt feelings. His vocal abilities are well deserving of the two solos he has (including a teasing cute “Ce-Celia) and a duet with Umpress of “Enough” presenting the ends of a failed marriage. The cast of four young women (Maya Brettell, Gracie Johnson, Presley Ryan and Brooklyn Shuck) who play younger versions of adults Bertie and Cee Cee are a delight; they are totally in sync with their roles from the get-go. Donna Migliaccio has a way with Yiddish words with a great big guttural hardness from the back of the throat. She is Cee Cee’s Jersey Jewish Mom. Helen Hedman is a classic in her role as Bertie’s very traditional uptight, protective waspy mother.

The musical propels forward with a mix of songs about life. There is a reflective ballad from Cee Cee “God Gave You Me”; a send-up, over-the-top, disco number “(I’m) All I Need” by Cee Cee and Ensemble, a delightfully choreographed performance by the three Bertie’s and three Cee Cee’s as they think about life as a wife, “My Perfect Wedding” and “Normal People” with Cee Cee and Bertie dreaming of living as roommates on the beach. “The Wind Beneath My Wings” comes later in Act II.

The scenic design by Derek McLane is wholly visually interesting. Surrounding an old-fashioned proscenium arch are stacked up high, wall to ceiling, oodles of faded into a grey tone beach furniture. The sound is often of the Jersey shore or California beach with lapping waves. Costumes for Umphress are often a bawdy visual joy while those for Davi are restrained, worn with a classy dignity.

The hitch for this reviewer in moving from book to musical, is that Dart has had to gloss over things. The character of Cee Cee seems so not a very nice person. It is not her brashness but her self-centered, “it is all about me” attitude that she projects to everyone. Over the course of the show’s two and half hours, Cee Cee bullies her BFF Bertie, humiliates a husband, dumps a boyfriend in the middle of the night without a second thought, and gives not a hoot for those who depend on her for paychecks as back up performers She regularly just says, nope, no performance tonight; leaving others with no money and the audience unhappy. For the most part, Cee Cee comes off as funny and brassy, but selfish with an utterly “me first, I am needy” attitude. That is until the last fifteen minutes.

Bertie, as the character is written, is bound by limiting convention. She is nearly submissive. She trades in an over-bearing mother, a one-dimensional crappy husband, for the overbearing, insecure BFF Cee Cee who needs to be the center of all attention. And then Cee Cee gets to float off as a savior as the play ends.

Perhaps I missed that Cee Cee has some clearly seen, touching vulnerabilities to humanize her beyond two musical numbers. She is her own Momma Rose.

There is so much to enjoy in the acting, singing and technical presentation of Beaches. I was no stranger in a strange land. Yet, as the show ends into a fade, I just couldn’t help but wonder how things would be if we paid a visit to Cee Cee ten years down the line. I hope all would be well not for her so much, but for all those who came into her life and depended on her.

Photo Gallery

Presley Ryan as Little Cee Cee, Brooklyn Shuck as Little Bertie Beaches Ensemble
Presley Ryan as Little Cee Cee, Brooklyn Shuck as Little Bertie
Beaches Ensemble
Mara Davi as Bertie, Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee and Beaches ensemble Cliff Samuels as Michael Barron, Mara Davi as Bertie and Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee
Mara Davi as Bertie, Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee and Beaches ensemble
Cliff Samuels as Michael Barron, Mara Davi as Bertie and Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee
Mara Davi as Bertie Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee
Mara Davi as Bertie
Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee
Mara Davi as Bertie and Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee
Mara Davi as Bertie and Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee

Photos by Margot I. Schulman

Cast

  • Bertie: Mara Davi
  • Cee Cee Bloom: Alysha Umphress
  • Michael Barron: Clifton Samuels
  • John Perry: Matthew Scott
  • Leona Bloom: Donna Migliaccio
  • Rose White: Helen Hedman
  • Young Bertie: Brooklyn Shuck
  • Young Cee Cee: Presley Ryan
  • Teen Bertie: Maya Bretell 
  • Teen Cee Cee: Gracie Jones
  • Karen Lewandowski/Nina: Svea Johnson
  • Arthur/Melman/Ensemble: Michael Bunce
  • Nurse/Ensemble: Bayla Whitten
  • Ensemble: Jamie Eacker
  • Ensemble: Heather Brorsen
  • Ensemble: Davis Hasty
  • Ensemble: Dan Manning
  • Ensemble: Ryah Nixon
  • Ensemble: Robbie Roby

Creative Team

  • Director: Eric Schaefer
  • Book & Lyrics : Iris Rainer Dart
  • Book: Thom Thomas
  • Music : David Austin
  • Music Director: Gabriel Mangiante
  • Choreography : Dan Knechtgest
  • Musical Supervisor: Mary Mitchell Campbell
  • Orchestrations: Lynne Shankel
  • Scenic Design: Derek McLane
  • Costume Design: Frank Labovitz
  • Lighting Design: Chris Lee
  • Sound Design: Lane Elms
  • Wig Designer: Elyse Horner
  • Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Stephanie Junkin
  • Associate Choreographer: Jessica Hartman
  • Assistant Director: Nick Martin

Disclaimer: Signature Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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