Bittersweet moments of ‘Beaches’ overwhelmed by razzle-dazzle score
chicago— In any discussion of a new musical’s central flaw, the book (or script, in civilian terms) is almost always the culprit. But “Beaches,” now in an alternately moving and exhausting pre-Broadway tryout in the Chicago suburbs with Washington’s Eric Schaeffer directing a high-powered cast, is that rare musical in which the charming book scenes arrive as welcome respite from a hopped-up score so bent on wowing its audience into submission that it often forgets to serve the quiet, bittersweet story it’s ostensibly there to support.
The story inquestion, of course, is familiar from the 1988 film of the same title starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey as two unlikely friends: Cee Cee Bloom, a brassy Jewish singer/actress whose unconventional looks temporarily postpone her inevitable stardom, and Bertie White, a classically beautiful WASP whose dreams of artistic fulfillment are snuffed out by her smothering mother, her chauvinist pig of a husband and, finally, a fatal disease. Both movie and musical (which premiered last year at Schaeffer’s Signature Theatre in Arlington) are based on the novel by Iris Rainer Dart, who wrote the lyrics for David Austin’s music and collaborated with Thom Thomas on the book scenes.
Long lampooned as a weepie and “women’s fiction” — with all the attendant sexist undertones in place — “Beaches” is in fact about growing up as a lifelong process. The central journey of the story belongs to Cee Cee, who must overcome her understandable insecurity about her appearance (“You ain’t no Natalie Wood,” her mother observes just before an audition), her egotism (as a star, she treats her theater-director husband as a gofer) and her fear of illness (“I don’t do sick”) to become the true friend to Bertie that she had always tried and failed to be.
At the Drury Lane Theatre, this arc is winningly charted by Shoshana Bean, a Broadway veteran (“Wicked,” “Hairspray”) whose crackerjack comic timing, megawatt stage presence and dropdead gorgeous voice are from the lineage of Midler, Barbra Streisand, Bernadette Peters and Idina Menzel without copying any of them. She delivers the sole holdover from the movie soundtrack, “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” in a heartbreaking hush that will remind you of Midler’s Grammywinning rendition and then nudge it gently but firmly aside.
Best of all, Bean and her excellent co-star, Whitney Bashor (Broadway’s “The Bridges of Madison County”), bring not manipulative tear-jerking but real pathos to the beautifully muted late scenes of grief and resignation. To Schaeffer and the actors’ everlasting credit, the emotional effect is not of cheap hysterics but of dignity, growth and the promise of new life in the shadow of death. I left the theater not with tears in my eyes but with a richly somber appreciation of the importance of friends as one navigates life’s maze, however you might hiss and claw at each other along the way.
Sadly, much of what precedes this satisfyingly humane finale is hard to wade through. A common hazard for backstage musicals is the temptation to bombard the audience with nearly nonstop razzle-dazzle, and Austin’s music, aided and abetted by the pelvis thrusting choreography by Lorin Latarro, sends regular salvos of holy-smokin’ showbiz our way, most of it only tangentially connected to the plot or its themes.
Many of the worst offenses are committed in the form of historical pastiches associated with Cee Cee’s rise up the ranks from summer stock to gay bars (shades of Midler’s famed early stints in New York bathhouses) and, finally, her Hollywood variety show. Nearly every number ends with the same arms-up, applause-demanding finish, which the opening-night audience dutifully provided in Pavlovian fashion since, after all, it would have been rude to withhold. I felt bludgeoned by all this and looked forward to the book scenes, where the story (ah, that!) primarily gets told.
There are some nifty supporting performances, particularly by Nancy Voights as Cee Cee’s hilariously foul-mouthed ma, Leona, and Brooklyn Shuck, who doubles as Little Bertie and Nina, Bertie’s daughter, both touchingly forlorn. As Little Cee Cee, Presley Ryan could stand to tone down the crowd-pleasing, “Annie”-style cuteness, which is phony and derivative. The thankless transitional roles of Cee Cee and Bertie as teenagers are played by Samantha Pauly and Olivia Renteria. Travis Taylor is appealing as Cee Cee’s hunky love object, while Jim Deselm brings some appropriately sharp edges to Bertie’s contemptible husband.
They all pale, necessarily, to Bean and Bashor, who round out this flawed but promising material with as much comedy, tragedy, sweetness and pain as they can muster. They do their absolute best. Whether this will be enough to succeed on Broadway probably depends on whether the creative team can find more ways to make the music dovetail with the narrative rather than grate against it. Given the beauty and humanity of the ending, they deserve our best wishes.
Shoshana Bean, left, as brassy Jewish singer/actress Cee Cee Bloom, and Whitney Bashor, as the classically beautifulWASP Bertie White, in the musical “Beaches,” based on the same novel as the 1988 film starring BetteMidler and Barbara Hershey. The musical is currently in pre-Broadway tryout at the Drury Lane Theatre in suburban Chicago.