"In every age mankind attempts to fabricate great works at once magnificent and impossible..."
While the opening lines from Titanic refer to the ship in question, they apply equally to the musical. The creators of Titanic attempt the near impossible; turning the story of a well known tragedy, which by its very nature is grander than anything than can be staged, into a musical. Viewing the touring production last night, after having seen the full-scale production on Broadway last June, proved to me how successful, in fact, they were: not since Sweeney Todd has Broadway produced what is essentially an American Opera.
Titanic is definitely operatic in scope, covering a tragedy in which over 1300 people lost their lives through an act of fate, and in score, with soaring orchestrations by Tony Winner Jonathan Tunick and intricate ensemble/choral music and lyrics by Tony Winner Maury Yeston. It even has a few 'pants' roles, as two of the male characters are played by women. Director Richard Jones, who is as much at home on the opera stage as he is on the theater stage, adds to that realization, by staging the show more like an opera than a traditional musical. He creates the feel of the show by utilizing staged 'snapshots,' and by making movements more choreographed than staged. The only area in which Titanic is not operatic is in its sets, which are surprisingly minimalist. That is one of its greatest failures or accomplishments, depending on to whom you talk. Realizing that it would be next to impossible, not to mention prohibitively expensive, to re-create the opulent world of Titanic on stage (to do so would require at least five sets of Sunset Boulevard proportions), Tony winning set and costume designer Stewart Laing, wisely chooses to go to other extreme. The ship is more suggested than displayed, and since we have all seen Titanic in pictures or on films, our imaginations are more than sufficient to fill in the gaps.
Of course, Titanic on Broadway did have one aspect of scene design that rivaled any of the high-spectacle shows on Broadway: the three level, many ton, hydraulic set used to create cinematic fades from one scene to another, and to show the ship's list as at sinks. This, of course, is not practical to take on the road, so the touring version has become even simpler in design. While the cinematic fluidity of the show is compromised by not having the multi-leveled set, Richard Jones has done a remarkable job re-staging the show so that the scenes overlap and come out of each other in an almost balletic elegance. Watching the First Class saloon occupy the same set as the bridge could have been highly distracting and forced the mind out of the scene. But somehow he managed to create a world where having the two juxtaposed did not seem unreal nor forced: since the mind has (hopefully) already accepted that this is a highly unrealistic set and is filling in the gaps accordingly, it is able to filter out background scenes as well.
And in all honesty, not having the mega-hydraulic set actually serves the piece better. Instead of focusing on the set (and admit it; there is always a portion of you that sits back and admires or dismisses grandiose sets), attention is focused more on the people. This is especially true during the scene in which Mr. Andrews, the builder of Titanic, gives his horrifying description on what will happen to the ship and the people still trapped on it. On Broadway, the scene became almost about the piano in the scene with Mr. Andrews: we all knew it was going to roll down and crush him (why else would it be there?) and when it did, the result was anti-climactic and reminiscent of a certain high-profile chandelier's inevitably disappointing fall. The sharp tilt of the stage still occurs (according to the actors, the tilt of the ship is actually greater on the tour than on Broadway), and it is much more effective having Mr. Andrews, sung brilliantly by Kevin Gray, on the same deck as the passengers plummeting to their doom.
In a local interview, Maury Yeston commented that he thought the touring company was stronger than the original Broadway cast. While I am not sure I would go that far, they are definitely on par with them and are one of the strongest casts I have seen in any show, touring or otherwise. Titanic, for better or worse, is an ensemble show, and it is hard to single anybody out from this stellar cast, as all deserve strong praise. There were standouts, and people who truly made the parts their own and actually improved upon the Broadway originals. Taina Elg, who received a Tony nomination for Where's Charley and created the part of Guido's Mother in another Maury Yeston show, Nine, was superb as Mrs. Straus, and one wishes she would have been the one to record the only love song in the show, "Still." Rebecca Lowman was remarkably subdued as the Bellboy, and caused debate among us as to whether the part was finally cast with a teenage boy. Her portrayal of what was one of the most annoying, cartoonish, characters on Broadway created a lot more empathy for the young cabin boys who to a man died with the ship. Adam Heller also created a more realistic character in his portrayal of Ismay, and made the owner of the ship even more odious.
Special mention also must be made of Melissa Bell as Kate McGowan, Richard Roland as her targeted beau, Jim Farrell, Dale Sandish as the radioman, Harold Bride and Marcus Chait as Barrett, Liz McConahay as second class upstart Alice Beane (providing some of the few comic moments in the show), and Raymond Sage as The Major (who also provided some needed comedy, and who surprised me by being in his 30's.
Titanic admittedly is not for everyone, nor is it everybody's ideal musical. It bares little resemblance to the recent movie blockbuster, in that it chooses to focus on how the disaster affected the various classes, rather than specific individuals. By not having a single couple on which to focus the tragedy, it risks alienating those who want a traditional love story and Broadway musical. Personally, I find Titanic to be one of the most moving musicals ever written: it strikes a chord and leaves me an emotional wreck every time I see it. While the Broadway production may have had as untimely end as the actual ship, the touring production will hopefully have a long life and smooth sailing. After a month in Seattle, it sails on to Chicago, Boston and Washington DC. It is a voyage not to be missed.
Titanic runs through April 18th at The 5th Avenue Theatre. For tickets, call call (206) 292-2787 or stop by the box office or any Ticketmaster outlet. For more information, visit The 5th Avenue Theatre's website at http://www.5thavenuetheatre.org.