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Musical adaptation of Beaches explores the healing power of female friendship

 Jessica Vosk as Cee Cee Bloom, Kelli Barrett as Bertie White in Beaches the Musical at Theatre Calgary. (Photo: Trudie Lee) Jessica Vosk as Cee Cee Bloom, Kelli Barrett as Bertie White in Beaches the Musical at Theatre Calgary. (Photo: Trudie Lee)

Beaches the Musical is a good cry, and that’s not nothing.

The latest version of the musical opened at Theatre Calgary Friday night, in a packed house that brought a huge gust of Broadway buzz to southern Alberta in the form of dozens of New York and Los Angeles visitors eager to check it out, alongside a string of Calgary politicians including the mayor, numerous councillors and a provincial NDP leadership candidate, Naheed Nenshi, known to enjoy a night at the theatre.

Beaches is an adaptation of a popular 1988 film starring Bette Midler, Barbara Hershey and Big Bang Theory’s Mayim Blalik that tells the story of the lifelong friendship between free-spirited actress and singer Cee Cee Bloom and Bertie, an heiress.

As they say in the press materials, and Theatre Calgary artistic director Stafford Arima repeated in an introduction prior to Friday’s curtain, “It’s a love story about friendship.”

That’s a pretty great log line and off the top, when we meet Cee Cee and Bertie as little kids (wonderfully played, respectively by Addison Wagman and Cecilia Currie) on a beach that could be Coney Island, you could feel the audience’s energy about to blow the roof off of the Max Bell theatre.

Wagman’s Cee Cee, dressed somewhat incongruously in a burlesque outfit, is a Borscht Belt comic hiding inside the body of a pre-teen wannabe child star with bottomless show business aspirations, while Currie’s Bertie is a proper young girl with a dazzling way of enunciating every word.

Or, to put it another way, Currie had me at ‘quixotically’.

Cecilia Currie as Little Bertie and Addison Wagman as Little Cee Cee in Beaches the Musical at Theatre Calgary. (Photo: Trudie Lee)

It couldn’t go wrong. Could it?

Well, a funny thing happened to the first act as soon as the girls morph into teenage besties Cee Cee and Bertie (don’t blink, you’ll miss it), and then to the young adult editions (with Jessica Vosk as Cee Cee and Kelli Barrett as Bertie) , circa 1966.

Somewhat inexplicably, all the juice drains out of the girls’ friendship for about 40 minutes, as the musical labours through a tortured sketch set around a summer stock theatre run by hot guy artistic director John (Brent Thiessen) where Cee Cee is struggling to establish herself as an actress -- and, failing that, to seduce good guy lothario John before he gets blinded by Bertie's WASP good looks and crisp enunciation.

Dysfunctional summer stock theatre company scenes can be hilarious but in Beaches, it all feels like a sketch from The Carol Burnett Show that would have been cut from the show back in 1976.

Whatever laughs are to be mined in Beaches generally come from either the salty commentary delivered by Cee Cee, a bohemian free spirit who loves to shock, or from the woefully sheltered malaprops delivered by Bertie, whose overbearing mother Rose (Emily Dallas) is determined to marry her off to wealthy Michael (Nathan Gibb Johnson),  whether Bertie loves him or not.

All of it is presented in energetic style by co-directors Lonnie Price and Matt Cowart in a theatrical approach (by designer James Noone) that might best be described as retro-Broadway – there’s a montage of marquees meant to conjure images of 1960s Broadway or Vegas glory for Cee Cee, while at other times we visit Cee Cee on the set of a fictional weekly CBS variety show that she’s the star of.


It's a weird kind of way to tell stories in the 21st century but the old-time-Broadway-musical design succeeded with Hairspray and there’s plenty of nods here towards The Producers and maybe even Gypsy as well, in tone and design --- and there’s a humanity to the schmaltzier aspects of Beaches that feels comforting, when viewed through the rear-view mirror of the pandemic and the lonliness epidemic it spawned.

There’s something to be said for an old-time, old-school musical with its heart in the right place and Beaches the Musical aims to be the prescription that fills that emotional hole.

After flailing away in the summer stock scene, Beaches improbably gets the big musical boat back in the water. The stakes amp up between Bertie and Cee Cee after certain betrayals that take them apart and bring them back together again, and the two characters start to grow on you.

Kelli Barrett as Bertie White, Jessica Vosk as Cee Cee Bloom in Beaches the Musical at Theatre Calgary. (Photo: Trudie Lee)

Vosk has a wonderful voice and a not-too-shabby sense of humour and successfully manages to catch the lonliness under Cee Cee’s diva exterior.

Barrett’s Bertie is the WASPY, wealthy fish out of water in the 60s and 70s and the writers don’t do her any favours but she has a nice way of hanging in there and by defying her mother and her class, she’s actually the only one doing any real rebelling here.

Other notables include Thiessen's John, who exudes an easy charm, Alba Evora Weiler as Bertie's daughter Nina, Sierra Holder, in a variety of roles and Calgary's Jamie Konchak, as Cee Cee's wild woman mother Rose Bloom and other roles.

All of it feels like someone dug deep into a tickle trunk full of archetypes from five or six decades ago, so how much you’re willing to go along with a 21st century Beaches is up to you.

But plenty of folks did Friday night, where there were tears and sniffles aplenty, so surely a critic can own up to it when a movie musical adaptation manages to turn on the taps of 700 or 800 theatre goers – even if it feels as if sticking The Wind Beneath My Wings at the very end feels more like a curtain call than a climax.

Ninety-one-year-old legend Mike Stoller, who wrote a couple tunes you might be familiar with – Hound Dog, Stand By Me, Jailhouse Rock – composed the music, which had some moments, in tunes like Wish I Could Be Like You, and God Bless Girlfriends, that elevated the storytelling and beautifully captured the friendship between two unlikely best friends.

The book, by Beaches author Iris Rainer Dart, and playwright Thom Thomas, feels undercooked and sketchy – but so did The Producers and it won 12 Tonys, so who’s to say? Musicals have their own love language, which generally involves singing your feelings so suspend your disbelief and hum along.

And while the book might not exactly nourish your ears, Rainer Dart has a real talent with lyrics, particularly when Currie's young Bertie is carefully enunciating them.

Theatre Calgary’s Beaches the Musical is the latest out-of-town tryout for a show that has been aiming for Broadway for a while now – and who knows where it goes from here? Hadestown and Six – The Musical went from Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre to long, profitable Broadway runs.

Can Beaches the Musical be the next Alberta export to Broadway? Judging by the rents they pay, I’d say New York theatre audiences could all use a good cry too. Top Stories


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