On stage ‘Titanic's drama lives'
Review: The touring musical, shorn of the film's special effects,
brings the human drama to the surface.
By J. Wynn Rousuck, Sun Theater Critic
“Titanic” is, in part, a musical about the dangers of hubris – although
the very idea of making a musical about one of the worst maritime disasters
of the 20th century might itself seem like hubris.
But as the touring production docked at the Mechanic Theatre proves,
librettist Peter Stone and composer/lyricist Maury Yeston have pulled
it off. And, they have done so with far more artistry than director James
Cameron did in his melodramatic, special effects-laden Academy Award-winning
Don’t go to this show expecting to see a 46,000-ton ocean liner
plunge into the icy sea. For that matter, don’t expect to see an
iceberg. If realism is the realm of the movies, suggestion is the realm
of live theater.
The touring show, directed by Richard Jones with sets and costumes by
Stewart Laing, is one of the bigger productions to play the Mechanic – roughly
the same scale as the Mechanic’s previous musical “Beauty
and the Beast.” But it is human drama, not technological wizardry
that carries this Tony Award-winning musical.
Not only has Yeston created a soaring score that ranges from the sound
of early 20th century British symphonies to anthems and ragtime, but
he and Stone have also achieved something much more daunting. Musicals
traditionally end on an optimistic note, and, remarkably, the show’s
creators succeed in sending the audience home with at least a shred of
hope – albeit bittersweet – even after the ship has sunk.
If the ending presented a major challenge, the issue of giving the
characters a reason to sing did not. People sing in musicals when their
emotions reach too fervent a pitch for mere speech, and, needless to
say, there’s no shortage of emotion among the passengers and crew
on the doomed Titanic.
In the beginning, they sing out of pride and happy expectation. In
the end, they
sing out of fear and sadness, and throughout much of the evening, they
sing of love. Two of the best scenes concern the latter. Midway into
the first act, a stoker (Marcus Chait) who has found his way to the radio
room asks the radioman (Dale Sandish) to telegraph a marriage proposal
to the stoker’s girl back home. While Chait touchingly sings his
proposal, Sandish sings of how he loves his life’s work and the
two songs blend into a lyrical duet. Like several other numbers, these
songs are sorrowfully reprised when the ship is going down.
An equally affecting song is the too brief duet “Still,” sung
by first-class passenger and Macy’s owner Isidor Staus (S. Marc
Jordan) and his wife Ida (Taina Elg), who refused her place in a lifeboat,
choosing instead to die beside her husband of 40 years.
As these examples indicate, one of the musical’s assets is that
it covers the gamut of social strata aboard the Titanic, mixing the principal
historical characters with a smattering of composites. At the lower end,
besides the stoker, there are the third-class passengers, an international
potpourri of people immigrating to America in search of a better life.
Second class is represented by two couples, one of which includes a social-climbing
Indianapolis housewife (sprightly Liz McConahay) whose opening gossip
about the socialites on board serves as a handy way to identify the first-class
Then there are those responsible for the ship, from the captain (William
to the ship’s builder (Kevin Gray) and the steamship company owner,
J. Bruce Ismay (Philip Hoffman), whose one-dimensional villainous depiction
nudges the tragedy perilously close to the level of melodrama typified
by Cameron’s movie.
A scene in which these three angrily cast blame on each other epitomized
the musical’s overriding Greek tragedy-like theme of the hazards
of pride. “Mr. Ismay was fond of boasting that Titanic was her
own lifeboat,” the captain says. “More than anything else
the man wanted a legend. Well, now, by God, he’s got one.”
Large as the production is, a number of disappointing modifications
have been made in Laing’s Broadway set to allow it to tour. On
Broadway, the various classes were shown on stage, one above the other,
though opening in the overall black masking. On tour, everyone is out
front, at stage level. In addition, the Broadway production featured
electronic signs on either side of stage, which increased tension by
keeping the audience apprised of the time, date and ship’s location.
Seemingly more easily transportable, these signs are an especially regrettable
Before “Titanic” opened on Broadway in 1997, rumors abounded
that the musical was foundering. The show disproved the rumors and went
on to win five Tony Awards. Though not a masterpiece, it is a striking
achievement and one that, unlike the ship itself remains sturdily afloat.