What can I add that has not already been said about Signature Theatre’s end of the year triumph, Titanic? My editor says the highest rating we can offer is five stars. Titanic deserves a few more.
I was primed for a good show, having fallen in love with the Maury Yeston score upon first hearing the original Broadway cast recording nearly 20 years ago. The magnificent music, with lyrics that define the characters and solidify the epic story, has played through my mind so much, I hoped seeing this new take on the Tony-winning musical would not dampen the show I had built in my mind’s eye.
I needn’t have worried. In fact, it surpassed my expectations. Director Eric Schaeffer, with a team of collaborators, has given Titanic a production that is an example of the word “titanic:” a work of exceptional strength, size, and power.
In my experience, the Max theatre space at Signature has never seemed so massive and open. Gangplanks of steel crisscross the theatre, giving the illusion of the the “floating city” that was the R.M.S. Titanic. Schaeffer’s physical production – a feather in the cap of scenic designer Paul Tate Depoo III – while large on size, depends on the audience’s willingness to fill in the the broad strokes with their own imagination. This audience member, for one, was a willing passenger on that ride. The period uniforms and distinct wardrobe of the three classes of passengers, as designed by Frank Labovitz, pinpointed the late Gilded Age down to the finest detail.
I must confess I only watched the film “Titanic” one and a half times. Technically impressive, the story left me as cold as Leonardo DiCaprio floating in the North Atlantic. Not so with Peter Stone’s tightly constructed, ensemble-driven book for Titanic. Stone not only found the humanity in all levels of the passengers and crew, but we see enough of the multiple characters to care about all their stories – from a romantic stoker from the lower decks of the ship to a wealthy elderly couple who would rather die together than live one minute apart. Shaeffer’s cinematic staging, with nary a dull or wasted moment, allowed each strand of the story to thrive.
A strong story deserves a great score and Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics are, in my opinion, among the best of the 1990s. Gentle pastiche of ragtime and hymn tunes, Mozart-like ensembles that sparkle and shine, ballads and (dare I say?) arias which rise from the hearts of the characters, Yeston’s score captures both the grandeur of the subject matter and the heartbreaking pathos the passengers endure that changes their lives forever.
Among the highlights in a nearly sung-through score brimming with riches: “Godspeed Titanic,” a fitting tribute to the dream ship of the White Star Line, is as rousing as the Star Spangled Banner. “No Moon” captures the complexity of social interaction while providing a sense of foreboding towards the frozen disaster that lies ahead. Three Irish lasses are joined by other third class passengers to sing about their ideal life in America, as maids, governesses and constables; a life of labor in the States is still better than where they are coming from, since the “streets are paved with gold.”
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For this production, new orchestrations by Josh Clayton have reduced the number of instruments to 17 without losing any of the sweep and majesty of the score, conducted with passion and precision by maestro James Moore, keeping a constant watch over both his players and the cast below his elevated bandstand.
As for the officers, crew and passengers of the Titanic, Schaeffer has outdone himself by assembling a cast that is first class all the way, no matter whom they are portraying. Individually, each cast member could most likely carry his or her own show, and some of them have done so. The construction of Titanic (the musical) is that nearly every character is given a moment to take center stage and express their desires and hopes on the “Ship of Dreams.” The contrast, for example, between thoughtful ship designer Thomas Andrews (Bobby Smith), the steady captain E.J. Smith (Christopher Bloch), and the arrogant owner J. Bruce Ismay (Lawrence Redmond) is palpable from the way the roles are written and the definitive performances by these three solid singing-actors.
With no weak links among the cast of 20, it was a pleasure watching them switch roles and taking their moments to shine as crew members and passengers alike. As stoker Barrett, Sam Ludwig’s tenor voice soared as he sung about his work board a ship and when he proposed to his girl back home through the wireless radio. Signature favorite Tracy Lynn Olivera displaying the longing for a better life as the second class passenger Alice Beane, while her long-suffering hardware owner husband Edgar (Russell Sunday) endures the journey with the help of his pocket flask. The poignancy of old love, as portrayed by Isidore and Ida Straus, and the aching hope of new love, seen with the unmarried couple Charles Clarke and Caroline Neville, were both rendered with tenderness and lyrical grace by John Leslie Wolfe and Florence Lacey (the Straus’s), and Chris Sizemore and Iyona Blake (Clarke and Neville).
Titanic offers these treasures and many more that should be savored in person and not just read about. And if the score, story, casting and staging do not float your boat, stick around for the stunning and theatrical conclusion which allows the audience to feel as if it were part of the sinking of the magnificent ocean liner. The R.M.S. Titanic may not have made it across the Atlantic, but Signature Theatre’s Titanic has set sail a legendary production.
TITANIC . Story and book by Peter Stone . Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston . Director: Eric Schaeffer . Cast: Hasani Allen, Iyona Blake, Christopher Bloch, Sean Burns, Matt Conner, Erin Driscoll, Jamie Eacker, Florence Lacey, Nick Lehan, Sam Ludwig, Kevin McAllister, Katie McManus, Christopher Mueller, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Lawrence Redmond, Chris Sizemore, Bobby Smith, Stephen Gregory Smith, Russell Sunday, and John Leslie Wolfe. Choreographer: Matthew Gardiner . Music Director: James Moore . Scenic Design: Paul Tate Depoo III . Costume Design: Frank Labovitz . Lighting Design: Amanda Zieve . Sound Design: Ryan Hickey . Orchestrations: Josh Clayton . Wig Design: Ann Nesmith . Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.