Think of it. A show about the deadliest commercial maritime disaster in history. A vessel that needed 54 lifeboats but only had 20. More than 1,500 passengers drowned. And it’s a musical. Considering that everything about the project sounded like a disaster ready to tank long before it left dry dock, you have to wonder what the initial pitch was like and how a theatre manager and potential backers reacted.
Long before the musical Titanic opened on Broadway in ‘97, rumors regarding elaborate sets going wrong, hydraulics breaking down, a budget rocketing sky-high, and last minute concerns that the show wouldn’t even open had gossip mongers salivating. But the show did go on. It even swept the Tonys, winning all of its five nominations, including Best Musical. Reviews were tepid, mixed to good, and even though, due to its enormous cost, the show closed without turning a profit, the overall reaction from audiences was generally positive. It was the tour two years later in 1999 that earned the praise.
Streamlined from the original gargantuan set design – those hydraulic pumps were now gone – the premiere in Los Angeles of the first national tour earned praise in the much the same way that the recent revival of The Color Purple did once it eliminated its original scenic design and put the focus on the performers. While Nate Bertone’s effective metallic looking design for the new Arizona Broadway Theatre production, now playing in Peoria until November 10, doesn’t tilt as the infamous ship sinks, its scaled-down look and its lack of effects are never an issue. Your focus is elsewhere.
Just before the intermission when the iceberg finally hits, with a boom, the enveloping backdrop cracks. From that point, once the second act begins and the ship has only 90 minutes or so left before it sinks, that crack widens, and widens, while objects such as a table, a chair, a flickering lamp, an anchor, and more, all hang from above, floating like ghostly objects in a crazy haunted house. The more the ship sinks, the lower those objects hang. Particularly effective is the moment when the first-class passengers bicker among themselves about life-jackets and whether they really need to go up on deck. A tea trolley slowly rolls from one end of the stage to the other. It brings the characters to a sudden silence as they look on at the eerie sight before them. The moment would be amusing if it wasn’t for the horrifying implications.
Writer Peter Stone has used facts and figures to keep the events of what occurred during those early hours of April 15 in 1912 as accurate as possible. Because of that, a problem the book can’t possibly overcome is that there are no surprises. Due to films such as A Night To Remember plus the phenomenal global success of James Cameron’s film of the same name – a fictional romance and all that business about a jewel aside – the events as they happened are by now too well known and documented. In terms of excitement, there’s no real tension. We know what’s going to take place and how. And the business about the ship being a monument to the different classes has already been explored.
But that doesn’t mean your attention wanders. Aware of what lies ahead, the stupidity of a company owner (Matthew Mello) demanding more speed and trying to override a captain’s authority will always induce an emotional response. And a steward telling 3rd-class passengers, “You wait down here until you are told,” as the water rises while the 1st-class are already climbing aboard the lifeboats will cause a similar sense of anger. But the moment when the lookout declares, “Dear Mother of God! Iceberg ahead!” you’ll have goosebumps.
Plus, among the high-drama, there remains good humor. When the steerage passengers talk of their hopes and dreams in America where they’re certain they can rise above their class, Albuquerque is pronounced ‘Albie-cue-cue,’ and Maryland becomes literally a ‘Mary-Land.’ That lack of worldly knowledge extends to even the 1st-class. At a dinner table when the recently married, youthful Madeleine Astor (Madison Cichon) is asked how did she find Paris, she replies without any sense of irony, “I didn’t have to. John knew exactly where it was.” She appears clueless, even concerned when the guests around her laugh.
Like a 70’s disaster movie where over time you get to know certain individuals and become concerned with their fates, among the real-life characters of the ship’s owner, its designer (Kiel Klaphake), the captain (Olin Davidson) and his crew, writer Stone has incorporated several characters representing the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-class passengers, many of whom were also based on their real-life counterparts. But they’re more snapshots of an assemblage rather than central figures; there’s no one person you’re with or get to know for any length of time. In other words, there’s no Kate and Leo, though amusingly, when it comes to the Irish 3rd-class down below in steerage, the women’s first names are all Kate.
As a result, the cast of Titanic is a true ensemble. No one performer stands out more than the other. The real star of the show is Maury Yeston’s score. Like Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Yeston’s Titanic is operatic in style, epic in scope. Full-throated, inspiring robust voices fill the house. With the streamlined set, Brian DeMaris’ outstanding ten-piece orchestra, and director Danny Gorman’s staging where the cast often face the audience directly as they sing, ABT’s Titanic often feels less a presentation of a regular musical and more a spectacular concert presentation in full costume. It’s lavish in sight and inspiring in sound. And best of all, it’s genuinely thrilling.
Titanic the musical continues at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria until November 10
Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin