Review: Beaches The Musical a polished production that should see success after Calgary

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Beaches The Musical is the kind of show that wears its big, brassy heart on its sleeve, making it so easy to like.

The production running in the Max Bell Theatre until June 16 is what was once termed an out-of-town tryout. It’s a production that producers, and possible investors, can scrutinize, far from the prying eyes of major New York critics. It’s essentially a work in progress, and what Calgary audiences are fortunate enough to witness, is a most promising endeavour, because few expenses were spared to import the top talent to mount it.

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This includes legendary composer Mike Stoller who collaborated on the songs with Iris Rainer Dart, directors Lonny Price and Matt Cowart, set designer James Noone and music director Katie Coleman.

Even if it could do with a few more rewrites and some tweaking, this Beaches is slick and classy, and, from a pure entertainment standpoint, it looks and sounds good, and is genuinely rewarding.

Adapted by Dart from her bestselling 1985 novel, Beaches is the story of a female friendship that spans almost three decades. It does have some rocky patches, but is always a friendship that is empowering, fulfilling and redemptive.

Cee Cee Bloom and Bertie White meet as children on a beach in Atlantic City in the early 1950s. They couldn’t be more opposite. Cee Cee is streetwise beyond her years, while Bertie is wealthy, privileged and overprotected. This oil and water combination proves a potent mix as the girls age, stay pen pals, and eventually enter, exit, and re-enter each other’s adult lives.

When they meet, Bertie is lost and frightened. Cee Cee rescues her and even teaches Bertie to be daring enough to take off her shoes and wade into the ocean, much to the horror, and chagrin of Bertie’s domineering mother. This is a metaphor that continues throughout their shared story. Bertie will need rescuing again when she runs away from her society wedding, and Cee Cee will again teach her to live life a little more fully. Ultimately, Bertie will teach Cee Cee who she really is.

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What this Beaches boasts, and what any subsequent production will demand, are four exceptional performances.

As the adult Cee Cee, Jessica Vosk epitomizes the kind of powerhouse diva who sucks the air from every room and relationship she enters. Dart admits she had Bette Midler in mind when she wrote the character, and Vosk definitely channels The Divine Miss M, from the vamping strut to the whip-smart tongue. Like Midler, Vosk is a Broadway belter, and she raises the roof of the Max Bell Theatre when she sings the Stoller/Dart anthem A Real Woman. It’s with this song that the musical kicks into top gear. It pretty much coasts on charm, humour and sweetness until then.

Kelli Barrett has the less showy role of Bertie. She knows she is Vosk’s sidekick, just as Bertie is Cee Cee’s, and it is to Barrett’s immense credit she never tries to upstage the diva. Where Vosk has to hide Cee Cee’s real personality and feelings, Barrett always gets to display Bertie’s as open and raw. Her defeated acceptance of an arranged marriage, her sense of betrayal when she thinks Cee Cee is stepping into an unfulfilling marriage, and her desperation to rekindle her damaged friendship, are all powerful moments in the show, but it is the scene in a wheelchair that is so heartbreakingly real.

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Equally vital to the success of this Beaches are the performances of the young Cee Cee and Bertie, and director Price has found a pair of dynamite scene stealers in Addison Wagman and Cecilia Currie. Price knows what winners he has in this duo, and uses them at every turn. They keep reappearing to comment on the predicaments facing the adult versions of themselves.

The men in Cee Cee and Bertie’s lives are not so much characters as plot devices. At least Dart has given Brent Thiessen as John Perry, who eventually marries Cee Cee, a few good scenes, but she has woefully underwritten the role of Michael (Nathan Gibb Johnson), Bertie’s inept husband. At least the men get one of the show’s comic songs, God Bless Girlfriends.

The actors in the hardworking ensemble play all the other characters who enter Cee Cee and Bertie’s lives, with Jamie Konchak and Sierra Holder being particularly outstanding in their numerous incarnations.

Noone’s set is a series of moving panels, which allow for the fluidity of Price and Cowart’s direction, and David Bengali’s projection designs on these panels indicate time and location switches. Thankfully, choreographer Jennifer Rias has not imposed big production numbers on this intimate show but has given the performers some fun moves to help establish character.

Musicals about female friendships or rivalries, from Heathers and Wicked to Chicago and Dreamgirls, have been successful on Broadway and on tour because women are the target audience for live theatre, and Beaches will speak to them loud and clear. Beaches in Calgary is just the beginning of its journey.

Beaches the Musical runs at Theatre Calgary until June 16.

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