Also see Scott's review of Riverdance
When Titanic: The Musical won the Tony Award for Best New Musical in 1997, one might have expected it would be a difficult show to mount for smaller theater companies, colleges and high schools, due to its assumed technical demands. While most productions will indeed stretch their tech budgets to mount the show, Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, shows that the show can be done without breaking the bank. Their production features some worthwhile performances and directorial risks (with both positive and negative results) that make for an entertaining, if not overly unique, theatergoing experience.
Titanic, which debuted prior to the blockbuster movie of the same title, chronicles the actions of the ship's crew, as well as a wide array of passengers, including stuffy millionaires, star-struck second class tourists and poor immigrants wishing for a better life in America. The dreams of these individuals are brought to light only to be shattered as they deal with their inevitable fate once the doomed boat strikes an iceberg.
The score by Maury Yeston contains a number of very strong choral and solo songs, with the music generally stronger than the lyrics. The numbers in the first act are much better than those found in the second half of the show, and there are a few songs that fail to rise above mediocre. However, there are tunes such as "Godspeed Titanic," "Barrett's Song," "Lady's Maid" and "The Proposal/The Night Was Alive" that are both wonderfully melodic and theatrically dramatic.
Peter Stone's book does a good job of providing a wide look at the many individual stories of passengers and crew members, and smartly presents the human side of the disaster. However, by dispersing the focus among so many characters, the audience never gets to know any one person at a deep enough level to significantly care about his or her fate. The fact that the outcome of the show is known at the outset also makes this a difficult story to tell and, therefore, not an overly compelling book for a musical.
Titanic is truly an ensemble show in every sense of the word. At Wright State University, several performers fully manage to present well-rounded and believable characters while also providing winning singing vocals. Alex Sunderhaus is spunky and endearing as Kate McGowan and sings splendidly. As telegraph operator Harold Bride, Zach Cossman makes nicely detailed acting choices and his vocals are pure and strong. Katie O'Neill gets the required laughs as 2nd class passenger (and 1st class wannabe) Alice Beane and sings confidently. Other cast members excel in either the singing or the acting departments. Eric Byrd (Barrett), Matthew Kopec (Andrews), and Drew Helton (Isidor Straus) are notable vocalists, while Charlie Mann (Hitchens), Jason Collins (Ismay), Jerome Doerger (Captain Smith) and Zach Brown (Edgar Beane) are noteworthy for their acting.
Director Stuart McDowell makes some risky choices, with varying results. He wisely stages many scenes in a manner to emphasize the humanity and relationships of the characters, and his use of projections at the end of the piece provides an enhanced poignancy. However, he has made several scenes too stagey (including some out of place choreography during "Barrett's Song" at the end of act one), and the pace of the show (especially transitions) feels far too slow in a number of spots. The choreography by Jeri Dickey is pleasant and apt (except for the above mentioned spots). Musical Director Rick Church leads a glorious-sounding seventeen-piece orchestra.
The nicely detailed set design by Don David incorporates a unit set representing the bridge and two levels of the boat on stage right. The remaining performance space allows for set pieces and props to be brought in to create the other required areas of the boat. The overall effect isn't extravagant, but certainly communicates the various settings for the show effectively and never feels cheap. The lighting by Matthew P. Benjamin is sufficient throughout, and the costumes by D. Bartlett Blair are attractive and period appropriate. Unfortunately, there were a number of miscues on opening night regarding the sound, lighting and scene changes that will hopefully be minimized at future performances.
Titanic: The Musical is a difficult show to mount both due to its complex technical requirements and in trying to tell a large-scale story with a known outcome while still making it interesting. The talented performers at Wright State University help in making their production an enjoyable and generally satisfying one. Titanic continues through May 31, 2009. Tickets can be purchased by calling (937) 775-2500.