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Theater Review: “Beaches” at Signature Theatre

The musical adaptation of Iris Rainer Dart’s weepy novel gets its world premiere in a production that transcends its chick-flick predecessor.

Mara Davi and Alysha Umphress in Beaches. Photograph by Margot I. Schulman.

Iris Rainer Dart is no stranger to lachrymosity. Countless tears have been shed since she bestowed her 1985 paean to female friendship, Beaches, upon the world (forever enshrined in the hearts of several generations of women thanks to the 1988 movie adaptation with Bette Midler)—and countless more can be expected thanks to the world premiere musical adaptation of Beaches at Signature Theatre, for which Dart contributed book (with Thom Thomas) and lyrics.

It’s not startling to find the audience in need of a hanky throughout much of Beaches’ two-and-a-half-hour running time—but what is surprising is how charming and genuinely moving the show is. All too frequently, productions pitched at predominantly female audiences descend into cliché-spewing mawkishness where everything is pink and sparkly and crafted out of shoes. With the exception of a memorable disco scene, director Eric Schaeffer is positively restrained here, focusing primarily on the genuine love affair between the brash, Bronx-born singer Cee Cee (played as an adult by Alysha Umphress) and the elegant, waspy Bertie (Mara Davi).

Fans of the film will find most everything to be different, even the names (in the movie Bertie became Hillary, played by Barbara Hershey, while Bertie’s daughter, Nina, was renamed Victoria). Dart’s faithfulness to the plot of her original novel allows for more theatricality in the scenes in which Cee Cee and Bertie work for a low-budget theater owned by John (Matthew Scott), as well as later, when down-on-her-luck Cee Cee finds herself performing disco anthems in a painfully unflattering sequined jumpsuit in Miami Beach. But the focus on the redemptive power of female friendship is no less heartfelt, even if the rift between the two opposite souls is glossed over for expediency’s sake.

From the minute young Cee Cee (Presley Ryan) yells at young Bertie (Brooklyn Shuck) for interrupting her nap between shows on an Atlantic City beach, the two seem perfectly at ease with each other. Cee Cee wows the sheltered little girl with her Shirley Temple-cloying (and awkwardly inappropriate) dance routine, while Bertie’s generous sincerity appeals to Cee Cee, whose stage mother (Donna Migliaccio) is an oppressive presence. Schaeffer quickly crafts the foundation for the friendship by showing both girls growing up in “The Letters (You’re Out There),” in which six actresses play the characters writing to each other at different ages. At times, the lyrics hint at some of the confused ardor of hormonal teenagers (“I kiss the mailman when he brings your letters,” sings teenage Bertie (Mayla Brettell), but Dart is clever enough to show how each girl draws something from the other that she lacks at home, making their friendship feel genuine.

The action unfolds in front of a spectacular set by Derek McLane in which hundreds of pieces of beach-bleached furniture hang on the wall around a small proscenium. It’s unclear what the furniture means, exactly, beyond offering top notes of antiquing trips and Restoration Hardware, but visually it’s both interesting and unobtrusive, and allows for other backdrops to be wheeled in to create a dazzling disco scene or the view from Cee Cee’s off-Broadway debut.

Dart and Thomas’s book is propped up by the remarkably polished music by Austin, a relative newbie whose songs are among the best Signature has presented in its new musicals. “The View From Up Here,” Cee Cee’s wistful number about being on the verge of success, is self-assured and powerful, and Umphress belts it out with gusto. But the most engaging numbers are the duets between the two friends, particularly “Normal People,” a funny song in which Bertie and Cee Cee persuade themselves they can live happily together in dream-killing domesticity, and “My Perfect Wedding,” which brings all six actresses back to sweetly depict the girls imagining their futures. Davi has fewer occasions than Umphress to showcase her superb voice, but her performance is arresting and just restrained enough to contrast with her costar’s necessarily over-the-top style.

Purists will be relieved to hear that “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” the song that spawned a thousand Midler-impersonating drag queens (and even a revival of sorts at the Oscars last night) makes it into the show, in a fitting additional scene in which Cee Cee flees her life with Bertie to record her debut album, but sings it clearly to her, with Davi present onstage, in the shadows. The lone clunker is “This is the Life,” supposedly an ode to the dysfunction of being a performer, which ends up feeling more twee than a Brady Bunch musical. And although “God Gave You Me” is thrillingly jaunty, its upbeat tone feels jarringly discordant towards the end of the show, when tissues are already wrung through. Hopefully no spoiler alert is needed when it comes to the weepiness engrained within Beaches’ finale; nevertheless it’s hard not to leave thinking that the show, like the friendship, was worth all these tears and more.

Beaches is at Signature Theatre through March 30. Running time is about two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($56 to $89) are available via Signature Theatre’s website.