Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Saturday, March 27, 1999

Lifestyle Arts & Entertainment

5th Ave.'s "Titanic goes down a winner

by Douglas McLennan

As a story, the sinking of the Titanic has it all –hopes, dreams, courage, cowardice, greed, selfless, love – all bound up in a great shared quest with a boffo wrap-it-all- up ending.

What it doesn’t have, of course, some 87 years after the great ship’s demise, is the slightest shred of suspense about how the story is going to end.

Then again, who cares? Knowing the outcomes of great epic stories only seems to help perpetuate their legends. Such tales are warm coats we like to try on again and again.

“ Titanic: A New Musical, “ which set sail Thursday night for a four-week run at the 5th Avenue Theater, was altogether too impressed with the bigness of its subject. It jumps up and down, gets in your face, even whacks you upside the head at every turn about what a mighty endeavor Titanic was and the disaster about to befall her.

If these epic orchestral excesses were all “Titanic” had going for her, it would be just another reductive mega-musical pandering after the next great emotional moment.

Instead, rather wonderfully, “Titanic’s” deck chairs are leaded with a terrific score and an uncommon share of subtlety and nuance. Of course, the show’s crew list is populated with cardboard cutouts, and what Broadway musical isn’t But “Titanic” has dozens of such cutouts, and author Peter Stone and composer Maury Yeston have them interacting at so many levels that the story and its music are intricately layered and complex. So “Titanic” is more a collection of swirling ideas than just a big boat going down for the count.

The swells – the Astors, Stauses, Guggenheims et al – come to Titanic with a sense of we-rule-the world- order that the ship confirms for them. Second-classers have their dreams waiting for them on the other end of their voyage, while those below decks are off to America with the hope of finding their dreams.

The crew, captain, designer and owner are the devil and conscience of the onboard world – the greedy owner pushing to go faster than the competition, the designer fretting about the details of his creation, the weak captain struggling to do the right thing but succumbing to the owner’s hectoring, and the trusting crew valiantly and blindly striving to do their jobs.

Stone and Yeston have enriched the story with plenty of historical detail: the stokers below decks wonder “what the boys from the Midlands are doing here”: the designer realizes the design flaw in his ship and quickly finds a paper solution (what? For the next time?); the resident onboard gossip makes sure we know her well-bred shipmates are.

The show’s multilevel stage design on Broadway was sleek but complex, requiring an expensive hydraulics system and much room. This touring version simplifies considerably, for the most part holding on to the clean look but losing a bit of the show’s elegantly modular feel. Yeston’s music is a terrific throwback to traditional Broadway. Its stirring tunes are eminently hummable and they skillfully set the mood and underlying tone, shaping the interactions of both characters and ideas.

Yeston often writes asymmetrically, leaving an obvious line unfinished or delayed. He’s also good at that Sondheim trick of making phrases turn around on themselves, starting as one thing and ending up as something altogether different. It’s very sophisticated writing. For good measure there’s also an expansively Gilbert and Sullivan-like patter song, as well as a somewhat less successful ragtime (the style that was the rage at the time).

“Titanic” is an ensemble show; no real stars, and the cast is, for the most part, filled with serviceable voices amply miked. Paul Gallo’s clever lighting does much to make an asset of Stewart Laing’s flat sets and stylish costumes. Director Richard Jones applies some interesting touches, but there are a number of annoying details he leaves dangling.

Still, “Titanic: A New Musical” is a stirring, enjoyable show, one that succeeds in telling this compelling story more thoughtfully than any movie so far.