Review: On Theater: A wild, wacky ‘Disaster!’ at the GEM

Remember those big-budget disaster movies of the 1970s — flicks like “Earthquake,” “The Towering Inferno” and “The Poseidon Adventure”?

What if someone created a musical satirizing them, adding pop songs of the ’70s for good measure?

Some people did. Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick, to be precise, and their whopping lampoon — appropriately titled “Disaster!” — is hilariously exhausting for both cast and audience at Garden Grove’s The GEM Theatre. Both creators were in the audience opening night, along with their collaborator Drew Geraci.

The concept is wild and wacky enough — a seagoing casino theater is un-anchored from its moorings by an earthquake that turns the ship upside down, which covers the plotlines of two of the three aforementioned movies. Then a highly capable (and apparently indefatigable) cast turns the show into organized pandemonium.

Artistic Director Damien Lorton has mounted some ambitious offerings at the GEM over his past 15 years, but this show is one for the books. The physical demands on the cast are extraordinary, and then they have to make the whole thing screamingly funny.

Add to this the real-life drama of a major cast member being hospitalized and a replacement, the box office manager, stepping in on scarily short notice and giving a fine performance. Hats off to Tad Fujioka for his star-making turn as a scientist warning of the impending danger.

Tom Patrick heads the cast as the blustery casino ship operator who ignores all safety measures and woos the sultry singer. His is a bull-in-a-china-shop portrayal that gathers laughs by the carload.

The singer is the estimable Adriana Sanchez, this time gaining more attention for comedy than vocalizing, though she hits her stride with a solo rendition of “I Will Survive.” Her byplay with her twin children (both played by Megan Michell) is a kick as well, especially when both kids are involved in the same number.

The show’s real star, however, is Dee Shandera, who calls up her inner Shelley Winters for a “Poseidon” lampoon (her character name is “Shirley Winters”) and is paired with a fawning lug, Jon Michell, as a middle-aged Middle America couple on a long-awaited vacation. Her “symptoms” of a life-threatening illness are a scream, and her dialogue in those sequences is un-quotable.

Brittany Gerardi plays it semi-straight as a newswoman and equal rights activist while Race Chambers convincingly enacts her broken-hearted ex-lover. Amanda Zaida Hansen reaps some uneasy laughs as a young nun striving to keep from kicking the habit.

The force of nature that is Debbi Ebert commands attention as a puppy-pampering diva, and an ensemble quartet establishes the show biz veneer of the production under the guidance of five separate choreographers.

Wally Huntoon’s seemingly disposable setting and Harold Mendenhall’s lighting effects carry out the theme nicely, as do Ramzi Jneid’s period costumes.

“Disaster!” is a cleverly concocted theatrical experience that will particularly amuse playgoers who were around in the Me Decade. It’s an all-stops-out musical parody at The GEM Theatre.

Tom Titus reviews local theater.


What: “Disaster! The Musical”

Where: The GEM Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove

When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. until March 24

Cost: $30 to $26

Information: (714) 741-9550, ext. 221, or