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Titanic
Musical Theatre Southwest

Also see Rob's review of The Sound of Music


(front row): GiGi Guajardo, Julia Parma and Alissa Hall; (back row): Jack Nuzum, John Shelton, Benjamin Smith, Antonia Cardella and Jeff Chavez
Don't be too impressed by the fact that Titanic won the 1997 Tony Award for best musical. Its competition was Steel Pier, The Life and Juan Darien. The Tony was the best thing that ever happened to this show. In other respects, the show has been almost as unfortunate as the ship itself, and I suspect that Titanic the musical will eventually also sink without a trace.

Titanic opened in April 1997, played 804 performances on Broadway, and still lost money, probably due to the huge cast, lavish costumes, and tilting set. But it didn't help that James Cameron's Titanic movie opened in December of that same year. Practically everybody in America saw it, and why would you pay Broadway prices for a story you just saw with Leonardo and Kate?

I think the other big problem with Titanic the musical is that it doesn't have a single memorable song, and I contend that just about every musical without a hit song is destined for obscurity. Broadway producers seem to agree, because now they give us musicals with nothing but hit songs—the "jukebox" musicals.

This is not a through-composed show, like Les Misérables or The Phantom of the Opera (both of which in my opinion are really operas), but there is more singing than talking, and the songs lend themselves to operatic voices rather than pop music voices. Composer/lyricist Maury Yeston said that, since this was such an English story, he wanted a symphonic sound that emulated English composers of 1912, namely Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughn Williams. But I think that their placidity is not really the appropriate choice for the second half of the show. After the iceberg hits, there should be dissonance and jagged rhythms and propulsiveness—in short, Igor Stravinsky, who was writing his groundbreaking ballets at the same time.

One other thing: everybody knows the story already, and the part that we're interested in is what happens after the iceberg. My complaint about the book, by Peter Stone, is the same as my complaint about the movie: too much time goes by before the exciting stuff kicks in.

And yet, despite everything I've said so far, I enjoyed myself at this production. I think it's because director Brian Clifton, who has loved this show for 17 years now, finally got to realize his dream of staging it out here in the desert, and there's something heartwarming about that. I admire his passion and his gumption.

Musical Theatre Southwest, given its 100-seat black-box theater and small budget, couldn't even begin to approximate the original staging, so the creative team really had to be creative. The set by Anna Nichols and Ezra Colon, although minimal, serves its purpose well; the lighting by Ryan Jason Cook is very good; and costumes by Lila Martinez with Gayle Smart as the wardrobe mistress are excellent. Jessica Quindlen, the stage manager, must have her hands full with all the entrances and exits and projections, but it all goes so smoothly as to be unnoticed. Only the sound design is sub par, and, at the performance I attended, static ruined what should have been the tearjerker number, the duet between Ida and Isidor Straus, the old couple who refuse to part as the lifeboats are being loaded.

A few of the 26-person cast can really sing, some can't sing at all, and the rest fall in-between. But that's all right. This is volunteer community theater, after all. Whether they have voices or not, all of them do a fine job with the acting. Is it unfair to single out certain people from an ensemble cast? Probably, and a lot of this depends on the roles they play, but I was impressed by (in alphabetical order): Antonia Cardella, Jonathan Gallegos, Starr Guajardo, Alissa Hall, Kathy Lovell, Brandon Price McDaniel, Jack Nuzum, Julia Parma (a lovely voice) and John Shelton. Best of all is Colin Burdge, whose beautiful tenor turns a song about a young man's love for telegraphy into the most affecting number in the whole show.

All in all, this production of a musical theater rarity is worth seeing, not so much for the show itself as for the energy and commitment of the cast, crew and director. You might have your doubts about it at intermission, but stay for the second half, and you'll be glad you did.

Titanic, by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone, is being performed by Musical Theatre Southwest in Albuquerque through August 3, 2014. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 4:00. The theater is at 6320 Domingo NE, just south of the fairgrounds off of San Pedro. Info at musicaltheatresw.com or 505-265-9119.


Photo: Jason Ponic

--Dean Yannias



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