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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Arizona Broadway Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The World Goes 'Round, Fun Home, Jekyll & Hyde, and Powerhouse: The Tesla Musical

Olin Davidson, Matthew Mello, and Kiel Klaphake
Photo by Scott Samplin
There have been a number of books, TV mini-series and films about the RMS Titanic, the ship that sank on its maiden journey in 1912 after hitting an iceberg, resulting in the death of over 1,500 of its passengers. Titanic, the 1997 musical adaptation which won five Tony Awards including Best Musical, uses factual information and a lush, operatic score to focus on the events that led up to the devastation as well as to spotlight many of the actual passengers onboard the ship.

Since it's hard to recreate a sinking ship on stage or the vast and expansive rooms and decks of the Titanic, Arizona Broadway Theatre's production, which has an exceptional cast, goes for a more minimalistic approach. While the creative aspects may not be as effective as other productions I've seen of this show, especially the Broadway production that featured a three-story set, part of which tilted around 45 degrees to show the ship in its final moments, it still makes for a moving and emotional journey and a captivating look at a tragic event from over a hundred years ago that fascinates us to this day.

From the boarding in England to the aftermath of the destruction less than 100 miles from the shores of North America, the plot of the musical follows the events of the passengers and crew of the Titanic over a period of just a few days in April 1912. Peter Stone's book and Maury Yeston's score do a fairly good job of giving us an idea of the vast range of passengers on board, from the wealthy members in first class to the poor immigrants in third class who are coming to America in hope for a better life, along with many members of the crew. The show also focuses on the three men who own, built and run the Titanic, and many of the characters in the show are based on actual passengers on the ship.

Stone's book provides plenty of details on the ship and skillfully weaves together dozens of characters. Yeston's soaring score features many energetic ensemble numbers along with some highly effective solo moments and also an exceptional 15-minute opening sequence that follows the boarding and launch of the ship, providing a sense of the sheer magnitude of the vessel. The combination of script and score also effectively capture the hopes and dreams of the individuals onboard along with man's never-ending desire to scale new heights and achieve greater things.

Arizona Broadway Theatre's cast is exceptional. While it's an ensemble show, some of the standouts are the trio of men in charge of the ship: Olin Davidson as the stoic and responsible Captain, Kiel Klaphake as the dreamer architect of the ship, and Matthew Mello as the villainous owner of the line who keeps pushing for the ship to go faster. Also, the three main idealists on this ship who are looking for better lives for themselves are Melissa Mitchell as the optimistic and headstrong Kate McGowan, John Knispel as the romantic Barrett, a stoker on the ship, and Jill Tieskoetter as energetic social climber Alice Beane. Mitchell's delivery of the ensemble song "Lady's Maid," which she leads, is beautiful, while Knispel and company favorite Andy Meyers, who plays the ship's radioman Harold Bride, deliver an incredibly touching duet of "The Proposal / The Night Was Alive." Fred Gerle and Carolyn McPhee bring a refined sense of elegance and devotion to each other as Isidor and Ida Straus. The trio of Matthew Curtis, Jacob Herrera, and Connor Hubbard, as the ship's main officers and the lookout who first spots the iceberg, deliver some splendid vocals; Hubbard's "New Moon" solo is eerily beautiful. Also, Brody Wurr is a breath of exuberance and energy as a teenage bellboy on the ship.

Danny Gorman's direction is fine, though somewhat uneven. His cast creates realistic, identifiable roles and he delivers fluid scene changes. However, many of the comic lines in Stone's Tony Award winning book are rushed and, while his first act is infused with an appropriate sense of urgency and fascination with the ship, the second act lacks, somewhat, the sense of fear and dread that most of the passengers should be exhibiting once they realize their unfortunate fate. He isn't helped by Nate Bertone's scenic design which, while the two-tiered design is beautiful and evokes the sleek, powerful and seemingly impenetrable riveted metal walls of the ship, doesn't ever truly give you any sense of the magnitude of the splendor of the ship. Also, having several members of the cast practically stroll, unburdened, across the stage toward the middle of act two, when the ship is already beginning to tilt into the water, seems very odd. There is also a stagnant sense throughout, with only the use of a few small set pieces and three moving ladders to give much sense of any location change. Only in the second act, once the back wall begins to crack and various objects descend from overhead as if they are suspended in the water, does the abstract and slightly surreal scenic design begin to show its beauty, as does the superbly staged and sung final scene.

While there are a few missteps in the direction and scenic design, Brian DeMaris' music direction is superb, delivering not only a full, lush sound from the 11-piece orchestra but some truly amazing harmonies from the large cast. Kirk Bookman's evocative lighting helps to differentiate the various locations on the ship and deliver some beautiful stage imagery, and Savana Leveille's costumes are exquisite.

While I have a few quibbles with Arizona Broadway Theatre's production of Titanic, the magnificent cast and orchestra deliver a truly moving and incredibly poignant memory of the over fifteen hundred people who perished, along with their dreams, on that fateful night back in 1912.

Titanic, through November 10th, 2018, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria AZ. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 623-776-8400.

Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston
Book by Peter Stone
Direction: Danny Gorman
Choreography: Kurtis Overby
Music Direction: Brian DeMaris
Scenic Design: Nate Bertone
Lighting Design: Kirk Bookman
Costume Design: Savana Leveille
Wig/Makeup Design: Amanda Gran
Sound Design: Connor Adams
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting and Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake

George Widener / Jim Farrell: Michael D. Brennan
Madeline Astor / Kate Murphey: Madison Cichon
Stewardess Hutchinson / Charlotte Cardoza: Chae Clearwood
Quartermaster Robert Hitchens / Chief Engineer Joseph Bell / J. J. Astor: Christopher Cody Cooley
First Officer William Murdoch / Bandsman Bricoux: Matthew Curtis
Capt. E. J. Smith: Olin Davidson
Isidor Straus: Fred Gerle
Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall / John B. Thayer: David Groccia
Stewardess Robinson / Mme. Aubert / Caroline Nevilla: Trisha Hart Ditsworth
Second Officer Charles Lightoller: Jacob Herrera
Frederick Fleet, Lookout: Connor Hubbard
Thomas Andrews, Designer/Builder: Kiel Klaphake
Frederick Barrett, Stoker: John Knispel
Ida Straus: Carolyn McPhee
J. Bruce Ismay, Owner: Matthew Mello
Harold Bride, Radioman / Wallace Hartley, Orchestra Leader: Andy Meyers
Kate McGowan: Melissa Mitchell
Benjamin Guggenheim: Tyler Pirrung
Edgar Beane: Jay Roberts
Marion Thayer: Meggie Siegrist
Third Officer Herbert Pitman / First Class Steward Henry Etches: Ben Stasny
Alice Beane: Jill Tieskoetter
Charles Clark: Eric Waters
Bellboy: Brody Wurr
Eleanor Widener / Kate Mullins: Liane Zielinski

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