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‘Beaches’ at Signature Theatre

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FOUR STARS
It’s not often that you see a musical selling souvenir tissues in the lobby, but Beaches does—so be sure and pick up some! This emotionally-charged musical now having its world premiere at Signature Theatre will draw you in and move you – and trust me – you will need the tissues.

Alysha Umpress (Cee Cee (left) and Mara Davi (Bertie) (right). Photo by by Margot I. Schulman.

Alysha Umpress (Cee Cee (left) and Mara Davi (Bertie) (right). Photo by by Margot I. Schulman.

Under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, Beaches tells the story of the friendship between two very different girls as they grow up and deal with the difficulties of life over more than thirty years. Based on the book by Iris Rainer Dart, rather than the more familiar 1988 movie, the plot was at times emotionally uneven for me, though the focus was more on telling the story of the strong bond between the women, rather than on any kind of linear narrative. For instance, in one scene, Bertie is reacting to the news of the death of her mother, and in the very next scene is singing a joyful song about how she wants to have a “bunch of kids,” with only a very tenuous connection between the two scenes.

The songs, with music by David Austin and lyrics by Iris Dart, are quite wonderful. Umphress sings a powerful ballad called “The View from Up Here,” and Davi has the intense number that ends Act One, “Wait,” which she sings intensely and emotionally. The humorous “Normal People” sung by both Umphress and Davi, was a real crowdpleaser, with Davi and Umphress singing about all the “normal” things they’ll do while trying to take a break and live as “normal” people. However, the show is exceedingly song-heavy, with a few songs slowing down the pacing of the show to no real purpose, and could be cut without any real loss.

Beaches’ strongest point is by far the exceptional cast. Alysha Umphress and Mara Davi anchor the cast with superb performances as Cee Cee and Bertie respectively. Umphress shines with her emotionally honest portrayal of Cee Cee while Davi manages to imbue Bertie with the perfect mix of delicacy and inner strength. Both are helped by costumes by Frank Labovitz—Cee Cee’s vivaciousness and Bertie’s fashionable elegance are admirably underscored by the costumes. Brooklyn Shuck as little Bertie and Presley Ryan as little Cee Cee are also excellent, and Maya Brettell as Teen Bertie and Gracie Jones as Teen Cee Cee really help develop the characterization of the two friends and their deep friendship in their exposition-heavy, yet delightful, number “The Letters (You’re Out There).”

Alysha Umphress (Cee Cee) and Matthew Scott  (John Perry). Photo by  Margot I. Schulman.

Alysha Umphress (Cee Cee) and Matthew Scott
(John Perry). Photo by Margot I. Schulman.

Surrounding Davi and Umphress are a very talented supporting cast, including Matthew Scott (Jerry) and Donna Migliaccio as Cee Cee’s domineering mother, Leona.

The design of Beaches is superb. Derek McLane’s scenic design is extremely clever and versatile, and wonderfully complemented by Chris Lee’s lighting design as they transform the set into the beach, a hospital room, backstages at a theatre, and even a delightfully tacky disco for the hilarious Act Two opener “All I Need.” Sound design by Lane Elms also works well to draw the audience in to this rich story, with a full orchestra filled with fine musicians, conducted by Gabriel Mangiante, who are equally adept at big production numbers and the more intimate songs. For example, the simple piano underscoring Umphress’ quietly sincere rendition of the famous “Wind Beneath My Wings” is extraordinarily moving and effective.

Beaches shines as it shows the deep friendship and emotional bond between Cee Cee and Bertie, as it draws the audience into their relationship. By the end of the show, having gone through both good and bad times with Cee Cee and Bertie, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Beaches is touching, filled with humor and sweetness as well as tragedy, and makes for an engaging and touching night at the theater.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

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Beaches plays through March 30, 2014 at Signature Theatre—4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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