Thank the gods, or at least the licensing people: in the new stage version of “Beaches,” we get to hear “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” It arrives during Act 2 of this amiable throwback of a musical, and the actress who lands it, Alysha Umphress, presents it to us in a delicate caress, as if it were a family heirloom, to be shown to the assembled guests on special occasions.
It’s not the only pleasing musical interlude of this Signature Theatre world premiere, based on Iris Rainer Dart’s hearts-and-flowers novel, about lifelong bosom buddies who need, needle and nourish each other. Dart — who has written the lyrics and co-written the musical’s book with Thom Thomas — fashions with composer David Austin some frisky uptempo numbers, especially a witty send-up of disco, “(I’m) All I Need,” and a song for the show’s stars, “Normal People,” that recalls the merry backstage brio of movie musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain.”
But trying to navigate the story’s stormier pathways leads the writers up some muddier alleys, in particular, to a lifeless ballad for Mara Davi, playing Bertie White, doomed pal of Umphress’s singing sensation Cee Cee Bloom, that sends us blandly into intermission. And the music for the talented Matthew Scott, in a turn as Cee Cee’s overshadowed husband, John, disappears from memory almost as rapidly as Gabriel Mangiante’s 10-member orchestra strikes it up.
So approach this “Beaches” with your expectations a tad in check. Be prepared for a few hiccups; be armed with the knowledge that it’s not quite the five-hanky schmaltz-fest you might be hoping for. (Signature is optimistically selling packs of “Beaches” tissues at the concession stand.) If you come with the thought that there’s a bit of tinkering still to be done, you’ll find that director Eric Schaeffer’s production is as comically engaging as this slightly dated material will allow.
“Beaches,” of course, is a pop-culture artifact as a result of the 1988 movie adaptation that featured Barbara Hershey and Bette Midler as a pair of unlikely best friends, one classy, one brassy, who wash up together in early midlife, clutching each other as they stare into the abyss. The novel’s accounts of Bertie’s horrible marriage — redeemed by the birth of a child —and Cee Cee’s yo-yo-ing career as an entertainer, provide a vigorous framework for a musical, offering patented opportunities for commentary on the pitfalls of show business and a well-deserved microphone for the sultry-voiced Umphress. She grandly takes up the gauntlet from Midler, who turned the film’s signature love theme, by Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley, into her personal anthem.
Chronicling the good times and bad times in the 1950s through ’80s between Cee Cee and Bertie — the two characters are portrayed by three sets of actresses at various ages, and all six are excellent — the stage version seems primed to carry on “Beaches’ ” time-honored tradition of allowing the tears to flow freely. So why does the novel’s unalloyed sentimentality feel underserved here? Though the show’s final scene raises a lump in the throat, thanks in part to the endearing portrayal by little Svea Johnson of Bertie’s daughter Nina, the musical as a whole doesn’t adequately capitalize on one of “Beaches’ ” most potent selling points.
Having just read the novel, I wondered how the musical would handle one of Dart’s most moving passages, a scene in which bitterly estranged Cee Cee and Bertie reconcile at the bedside of Bertie’s dying mother, Rose (Helen Hedman). In the novel, Bertie is stunned to find Cee Cee in the hospital singing a lullaby to the unconscious Rose. What might communicate love and loyalty with more emotionality? The musical merely portrays Cee Cee showing up stalwartly at the hospital after their roaring row, to lend Bertie support. “Beaches” is one of those properties that feels as if it is not fulfilling its mission unless it goes a little over the top.
Dart and Thomas, with Schaeffer’s guidance, do a darn good job of propelling an audience through a considerable volume of exposition. In concert with choreographer Dan Knechtges, Schaeffer and the songwriters come up with deftly inventive ways to integrate Little Bertie and Cee Cee into numbers with their older selves. As the littlest embodiments of the main characters, Brooklyn Shuck and Presley Ryan are delightful. But with the exception of Michael Bunce as a Sarasota obstetrician who falls for Cee Cee, the male roles are all rather thankless.
Derek McLane’s totemic set — high walls made out of desks, bureaus, lamps and tables, interlocking items furnishing two lives — is a pleasantly unconventional backdrop, and costume designer Frank Labovitz is in fine form, dressing the high- and low-living Cee Cee in wild ’60s paisleys and ’70s sequins.
The main event, however, has to be in the electricity that crackles through the central love story, that of two obstinate women drawn inexorably into each other’s arms. Umphress and Davi are well-matched for ignition to occur (though, come to think of it: how can it be that Bertie has nearly as good a voice as Cee Cee?). One waits with a pack of “Beaches” tissues at the ready, for the water works to come as readily as do the amusing sparks.
music by David Austin, lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart, book by Dart and Thom Thomas. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Orchestrations, Lynn Shankel; lighting, Chris Lee; sound, Lane Elms; wigs, Elyse Horner; music supervisor, Mary-Mitchell Campbell. With Donna Migliaccio, Cliff Samuels, Maya Brettell, Gracie Jones, Bayla Whitten. About 2 ½ hours. Through March 30 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-7328.