Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Review of Uncut Production's "Disaster the Musical"

“You’re going to have to prove that you are undoubtedly sane, and singing songs about disaster is not going to help.” So echoes the theme of Disaster:The Musical!, the brilliant theater and multimedia work-in-progress brought to the Fringe by Uncut Productions. In this biting satire, the story follows Brea Bee as Kelly Depooter, a starry-eyed and hopeful American who wanders about the globe from one disaster to the next, trailing the fictional DNR news crew in her quest to achieve fame as a news reporter, find true love, and stave off an insanity that threatens to ruin her. Staged in what felt like a U.N. disaster-relief tent, this piece takes a penetrating look at the news media’s sensationalism of tragedy, and devastating effects that such a desensitizing attitude can bring about.

The humor in this piece could not have been any more on target. Imagine the comedy of The Daily Show coupled with the political commentary of Orwell, and you get some idea of what Uncut presented at the Fringe. In between every staged episode, a simulated news cast flashes upon a large screen above the stage. Here the audience bears witness to an over-sexed and flagrantly insincere parody of Dan Rather in Mark Dahl’s “Mr. Stone;” a mocking portrayal of Ann Coulter in Brenda Logan’s “Julie Junck;” an “I-feel-your-pain” manic-depressive (and hilariously over-the-top) “Susie Whinfrey” by Crystal WhyBark; Newel Gatrell as the hysterically bitchy fashionista “Micheal Knight;” and Scott Yelity as “Scotty G,” who takes nothing seriously, using each disaster as an excuse to steal from victims, flirt wildly, and get drunk. This ensemble works together brilliantly and seamlessly, as they deliver one send-up of events after the next. The material is written so well that the only surprise comes from how much the audience laughs at this cast’s satirized portrayal of the tragic events that unfold.

This commentary on the media is where Disaster succeeds most, as this production captured the false hyper-reality of television’s persistent pretension of seriousness. Touching upon Chernobyl, the Ebola outbreaks in Africa, AIDS, Columbine, Waco Texas, and the Asian Tsunami disaster, the DNR crew shows up, takes pictures, and pokes fun at the victims before returning home to provide the “serious” commentary for their viewers. On the beaches after the Tsunami, they pick the pockets of their victims, take “wish-you-were-here” style photographs, and find the tragedy of thousands of deaths in the singular loss of model Petra Nemcova’s photographer boyfriend. Yet this is only one example of the contrast Disaster provides—showing brilliantly that all journalism does anymore is find the sensational in tragedy, just so long as the people affected are not us. They drive this point home towards the end of the first act, when they touch on but refuse to deal with the 9/11 events—giving a showstopper if there ever was one, with Bee mingling mourning and hope as she sings of the victims, promising not that we will never forget them (a patriot’s cry), but that we will always remember them with our love. One of the best moments of the piece, this contrast interjected into the satire completely devastates, as it mercilessly forces the audience to realize that half the joke of Disaster is on them.

As a musical, the production consisted only of Bee (and the ensemble) singing familiar hits, ranging from Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” to “Buttons” by the Pussycat dolls. But this apparent lack of originality on Uncut’s part only enhances the musical’s theme. Bee plays a young woman on the verge of an insanity brought about by the culture in which she lives, so it makes sense that she could only understand her own feelings through the popular culture that defines, reinforces, and allows her to interpret them. The choices of some of the songs presents a slight problem in this regard (would she have known a song by the Bangles?), but the intent only further skewers and illuminates the degenerate impact that the media has on people’s lives. Bee shows a real dexterity in her wonderful voice, which completely obscures the fact that hers is the only character that sings in this piece.

The play only broke down at the point when it shifted from the satire in an attempt to focus on the subplots of Kelly’s relationship with Mr. Stone (still funny though), or with Knight’s very real concern over the tragedy of AIDS, or Junck’s nasty competitive feud with Kelly. Uncut managed some of these elements better than others, and the lapses here only reminded that they presented a work-in-progress for the Fringe. The unfinished aspect of this work detracted slightly throughout; leaving the news team as underdeveloped stereotypes, plot elements lacking integration, and an ensemble of dancers that does very little. But these flaws go mostly unnoticed in a production that succeeds so well as clever political satire.

Disaster The Musical! doesn’t so much make a point, as it illustrates an idea—fleshed out in the very self-defining understanding of events in one woman’s mind, dictated to her through the lens of arrogant media sensationalism. In the second act, she goes mad, and the question Disaster invokes is not why this happens, but how even the most cynical mind could escape her fate. I hope that Uncut Productions takes this piece and fleshes it out fully, restaging something more polished, focused, and finished than the flash of brilliance they presented at this years Fringe Festival. Disaster is one of those rare new productions that works.

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