Titanic: The Musical
- Story & Book by Peter Stone
- Music & Lyrics by Maury Yeston
- Produced by Toby’s: The Dinner Theatre of Columbia
- Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Occasionally, the American Theatre Wing has awarded a Tony “for adding luster to the Broadway season” (for example, Liza Minnelli in 1974). Occasionally, in a season of lackluster new musicals, an award is given pretty much for just showing up. That more or less sums up the prizes bestowed on Titanic: The Musical in 1997, which was eerily reminiscent of the kudos to Big River in 1985. Had Titanic opened one season later (in company with The Lion King, Ragtime, and Side Show among others) would it have warranted even a nomination?
I really couldn’t say about that production, but Toby’s warmhearted and lavish production surely adds luster to our theatre season. Artistic Director Toby Orenstein is once again to be commended for selecting a show which, because of its scenic demands and large cast, other theatres would find too artistically and/or financially daunting. Kudos to co-director Munsey for any arm twisting involved.
The show opens with Russell Sunday as shipbuilder Thomas Andrews singing the praises (“In Every Age”) of the vessel he designed – taking its place among the other monuments to mankind’s vision and industry throughout history. Sunday is one of the finest singing actors in the Washington metropolitan area and his stirring voice quickly sets the mood for the show.
But Titanic is truly an ensemble production as we see when we are introduced to the crew and voyagers in the first scene. In a series of songs and song fragments, we meet the owner/financier (the always likeable Lawrence B. Munsey, cast in this rare occasion as the heavy, J. Bruce Ismay), the captain (David Bosley-Reynolds), the crew, and the passengers; we learn both how the Titanic came to be commissioned, built and provisioned as well as how the various individuals came to be standing on the Southampton dock on April 10, 1912. The scene effectively conveys the broad themes which underscore the show (especially the rigid social class structure in America and abroad and the economics of the time which fueled another major wave of immigration to the United States).
Janine Gulisano-Sunday (as social-climbing Alice Bean) and Daniel McDonald (as her exasperated husband Edgar) do the lion’s share of the comedy heavy lifting in the show, with Andrew Horn (Henry Etches, senior first-class steward) aiding and abetting in the hijinks as chief bouncer when Alice comes a-crashing into first-class functions. The “Three Kates” (Jessica Ball, Rosie Sowa, and Emily Ann Formica) are joined by other 3rd-class passengers in “Lady’s Maid,” a song which also livens up the production as they tell of their aspirations to prosper in America as a maid, a governess, and a seamstress. Sure and isn’t everyone in Ireland named Kate! Sam Ludwig, as crewman Frederick Barrett, ranges from humorous to heartfelt in his scene with Byron Fenstermaker (radioman Harold Bride), as he cajoles the wireless operator into transmitting his marriage proposal to his sweetheart in Morse code.
Ludwig also solidly delivers one of the show’s stronger ballads, “Barrett’s Song,” laced with irony and bitterness about giving up the harsh and impoverished life of a coal miner to end up shoveling coal deep in the bowels of a stifling boiler room. In contrast, the lives of the rich and famous, while essential to the drama, seem far less interesting.
Act II is a descent into tragedy, providing an opportunity to witness the full range of human emotions and behaviors as people confront imminent disaster. “The Blame” is a powerful song wonderfully performed by Munsey, Sunday, and Bosley-Reynolds as they hurl accusations. Ultimately, the shipbuilder and the captain accept their responsibility for the ship’s fate, while the cowardly owner skulks aboard a lifeboat with the women and children. Throughout the crisis, Fenstermaker is so earnest and unflinching as wireless operator Bride, one might assume that he will succeed in bringing about a rescue, the historical outcome notwithstanding.
Melynda Burdette and Robert Beiderman, as Ida and Isidor Straus, the Macy’s Department Store magnate, sing of their enduring love (“Still”) after Ida refuses to board a lifeboat without Isidor. Why is it that songs that are blatantly written to tug at the heartstrings so often succeed? Burdette and Beiderman have solidly established their characters by the time we arrive at this scene, so “Still” is acted and sung with poignancy. Someday a duo of enterprising character actors will have to put together a seniors’ love songs cabaret, opening with “Still” and surely including “Do You Love Me?” (Fiddler on the Roof), “It Couldn’t Please Me More” (Cabaret), and “Rain on the Roof” (Follies).
The two-part finale in which all company members raise their voices in a reprise of “In Every Age” and “Godspeed Titanic” is a very stirring close.
You will have to see for yourselves what wizardry Richard Montgomery pulled out of his hat to design a ship’s gangway, deck, captain’ bridge, and first-class dining room. He truly captures each scene’s setting and in the blink of an eye, with lighting or movement of set pieces, the audience is whisked away to another part of the ship. Lawrence Munsey is a quadruple threat, not only playing the villain on stage, but sharing directorial duties with Toby Orenstein as well as serving as choreographer and costume designer. The period costumes are so gorgeous you will think they came direct from the set of the Titanic movie or the Broadway stage. And you’d be right, because Toby rented sixty costumes from the Broadway production to enrich the glamour and period authenticity of this production.
Titanic has a very solid book and fine lyrics, but the melodies seem thin to me — watery, even. It is not Maury Yeston at his best. However, an enhanced five-piece orchestra performs Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations to perfection, sounding like a full symphony, and the talented cast makes beautiful music throughout. Toby’s staging elevates the show and brings out its best moments. Avid theatre-goers know about the trouble-plagued Broadway previews where audiences were repeatedly sent home early because the ship was having a bad day. Toby’s production makes heart and humanity the focus of the show and soundly trumps the pyrotechnics and hydraulics.
In particular, I would highly recommend the show to a young audience as an incredible theatrical experience where history meets art. The strength of both the staging and the acting warrants a repeat viewing. The score that I find lackluster, but I know that others adore, is played and performed style and grace.
Director Toby Orenstein discusses Titanic with Joel Markowitz. Listen here.
Titanic continues thru November 11th at Toby’s: The Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044. Tickets: Adults: $44 – $49, Children $30.50 – $49. Includes a lavish dinner or Sunday brunch. For more information, call 301 596-6161 or visit their website.