All words: Tristan Lejeune
Let’s start with the set.
The stage dressing of Signature Theater’s new musical adaptation of “Beaches” — and dressing it is — would have Thornton Wilder spinning in his grave. But then, who cares what he thinks?
Two walls greet the audience taking their seats, one backdrop and one makeshift proscenium, both stacked high with mounted, monochrome-painted chairs, doors, desks, a baby carriage or two — all the spare pieces likely to be rattling around in a scenery storage room.
Designed by Derek McLane, the set is consciously crammed with stuff, with the messy accutrement of life. It’s supposed to symbolize all the silly trappings, all the spoils that weigh us down as we stack them up. It’s supposed to offer a stark thematic contrast to the open-air, “precious,” natural scenes between our best-friend protagonists, scenes that largely take place, of course, at the seaside.
Supposed to. Like much of this lively, engaging production, you can see where the scenery is going, but it isn’t quite there yet. The doors, literally and figuratively, work. The globe, pinned like a butterfly in the deus ex machina position, does not.
In his program notes, Eric Schaeffer, who directed the show and serves as Signature’s artistic director, politely implies that he feels lucky “to be introducing this original musical to Washington — and the world,” but really it’s “Beaches” that’s lucky to have this run (through March 30, with a Pride night on Friday) to hone and sharpen itself, should it hope to move on to bigger venues.
“Beaches” is obviously most famous as the 1988 film starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, but Iris Rainer Dart has returned to her original 1985 novel for this script, cowritten by Thom Thomas. And as an adaptation, it’s very smooth.
Pacing and momentum are pretty much perfect here; segues are solid and it’s hard to say there’s too much time spent on X and not enough on Y. As the leads, Alysha Umphress and Mara Davi have good chemistry and better harmony, though it’s not always easy to be excited about what they’re singing.
Cee Cee and Bertie meet as little girls and become lifelong friends. They fight and make up, they mail copious letters when they aren’t living together, and they offer each other support through crummy parents, divorce, professional setbacks and, finally, a fatal case of cancer. Margaret Atwood would say the two women “sororize;” the entire play is a celebration of female friendship and, as such, more power to it.
As the profane, voluptuous Cee Cee, Umphress looks like she’s having a great time, and her voice is, if anything, too good for her material. Davi is a well-chosen counterpoint: slight but openly expressive, she has a first-rate stage whisper and some impressive pipes of her own.
Their voices blend like they were woven together, and with grade-A costumes and the occasional grade-D wig, they share the best moments in the show.
Most of the other characters feel pretty thin, which is OK in its own way: they’re almost beside the point. This story is about the two-woman center; everyone else is kinda part of that scenery. And when another character (a deeply imperfect mother or boyfriend, for example) does break through the chorus, it’s almost obtrusive.
Coming in at two-and-a-half hours, it’s tough to wish there was more of “Beaches,” but if the songs are going to be so forgettable (and if so many of the dramatic beats are going to feel lifted from “Gypsy”), they might as well do more of the heavy lifting. The lyrics could tell more of the story, like they do in the rollicking “Normal People,” one of (need it even be said?) several duets.
And the play almost seems embarrassed by its most famous number. “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” that soaring, sentimental friend-as-soulmate love song, is quickly shuffled on and off stage midway through the second act, like a No. 1 hit redheaded stepchild.
Far more fun: the half-parody disco “(I’m) All I Need.” This one could be a campy classic, but the show would be wise to make fun of it a little less.
Choreographer Dan Knechtges and lighting designer Chris Lee both look like they wish for a larger stage, but hey, you gotta play the hand you’re dealt. The message of the show is that with a true, loyal friend at your side, any hand gets easier to play.
“Beaches” is a crowd-pleaser, and a three-hanky one at that. Me, I left my hanky in my pocket, but I was far from displeased. A few tweaks — a couple of discards out of that hand — and this could be a really good show. It certainly won’t fade into the scenery.