The Baltimore Sun


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 motion picture.

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 swells.

Then there are those responsible for the ship, from the captain (William Parry)
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 loss.

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.