Bit­ter­sweet mo­ments of ‘Beaches’ over­whelmed by raz­zle-daz­zle score

The Washington Post Sunday - - THEATER - BY KEVIN NANCE Nance is a Chicago-based free­lance writer whose work has ap­peared in The Post, the Chicago Tri­bune, USA To­day and many other publi­ca­tions. style@wash­post.com

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.

BRETT BEINER/BRETT BEINER

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.

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