Let's face facts here. Beaches is first and foremost a 1988 film starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey as two best friends who yak/sob their way through careers, single parenthood, and serious illness.
Panned by critics at the time, it's survived because of a unique combination of irresistible sap, on-point casting—especially the brash and vulnerable Midler—and, there's just no way around it, Midler's song "Wind Beneath My Wings." But the movie didn't just spring forth from the depths of director Garry Marshall's sentimental head. It's based on a novel by Iris Rainer Dart, who did not write the screenplay but did recently co-adapt said book into a musical, now playing at Drury Lane in a pre-Broadway tryout. The film may be all tears and 80s synth music, but it also got a couple things right. This current incarnation could take a lesson.
When Beaches first debuted at Virginia's Signature Theatre last year, critics pointed to lackluster music and a lazy book—problems that I'd argue still plague this production, despite major changes and the addition of Broadway vets Shoshana Bean of Wicked and Whitney Bashor of The Bridges of Madison County (leads Cee Cee Bloom and Bertie White, respectively). Performances from both women feel hindered by Rainer Dart and Thom Thomas's book, which runs light on clear motivation and heavy on formula. Both Bean and Bashor's characters too often drift into nice nice land, all friendship and bosom confessions (I inwardly cheered when Cee Cee finally hurls an F-bomb at a Christmas tree). Part of the problem is that the musical doesn't seem to have decided on its audience. Gangs of tissue-clutching women? Tweens out for a glimpse of Matilda's Brooklyn Shuck? Anyone who was breathing air before 1990?
Then there's what I'll refer to as the "John Plot," a messy chunk of the first act that still clunks despite all the rewrites. Both women love John (played by the hunky Travis Taylor), a director who eventually marries Cee Cee in an extremely confusing pseudo dream sequence. Beaches digs its nails hard into the John Plot, allowing John to become the main reason for the friends' split without ever showing us all the women's mounting tension and jealousy. On this point, director Eric Schaeffer, who also directed the musical's premiere, ought to take a cue from Beaches the film. Give us the damn catfight already.
Rainer Dart, who's mostly written novels, took an earlier crack at theater in 2011 with The People in the Picture, a Holocaust musical New York Times critic Ben Brantley called "thin treacle." In Beaches, her lyrics high-five each other like so many unmemorable children's rhymes. From the second act's "Normal People," for example: "We'll ride our bikes / We'll go on hikes / They're gonna think we're dykes." You can hear the thud of "dykes" even without David Austin's singsong, same-sounding music behind it. This production also manages to misplace that holy of holies "Wind Beneath My Wings," awkwardly sandwiching it in between Cee Cee's exit from Bertie's life and another song that has her promptly returning.
Like the film, the musical ends with death–which to her credit, Rainer Dart treats with focus, humor, and sincerity. But that doesn't redeem the chaotic first half, and it certainly doesn't save it musically. For now, the wind beneath its wings needs to blow a whole lot harder. v