With the Broadway launch of Maury Yeston’s Titanic coming just a few short months before the 1997 release of James Cameron’s emotional cinematic epic of the same name, comparisons between the story telling, of the ships ill fated maiden voyage of 1912, have become as inevitable as the impact with the iceberg. The familiarity with certain characters and absence of others is something the audience must overcome; the task of transporting us aboard a floating city in the middle of the Atlantic, and then sinking it, is a far bigger challenge.
Two gangways, leading up to other gangways high above our heads, are the only set that greet the audience upon taking their seats. In the center of the bare, intimate, Signature stage, surrounded by audience on four sides, lie the blueprints for Titanic. With the expectations for the audience set, the minimalist approach is executed expertly throughout act one. With the opening of trap doors, for the shoveling of coal in the boiler room, with the wooden benches of the 3rd class passengers, or the lowering of a chandelier to take us into first class finery, Paul Tate dePoo III’s set, in harmony with Amanda Zieve’s terrific lighting design, transport us not only around the different areas of Titanic, but the social standing of its’ passengers too. The costumes are a fine reflection of the period but are crying out for a splash more color to contrast against the overall blue palette.
It really is smooth sailing, as Director, Eric Schaeffer, and Choreographer, Matthew Gardiner, lead us seamlessly through each scene and the transition to the next.The movement between scenes is so precise – the synchronicity of the cast and the movement of set pieces is almost flawless – it’s a joy to watch. Schaeffer’s experience directing in the round is clear as he is conscious of audience sight lines throughout the production. The stage is always so well balanced, almost to a fault on one or two occasions, where intimacy between characters is sacrificed for intimacy between character and audience.
The stand out performance in act one is delivered by Sam Ludwig, as Frederick Barrett. We can almost feel the sweat dripping down his face in the heat of the boiler room with his intense delivery of Barrett’s Song. The scene shortly afterwards, between Barrett and Harold Bride, played by Nick Lehan, becomes the emotional center of the first half, as he sends a telegram to the girl he is to marry, waiting for him at home. There is genuine chemistry between the two and it’s the first time that the tragedy to come really feels personal. Unfortunately the connection of these two men, meeting for the first time, is never quite matched by the relationships, and some of the vocal combinations, of the numerous couples whose fate we are asked to invest in. That is largely due to the writing (and our inability not to pine for Kate and Leo) but also due to the smaller casting of the show, with many of the actors taking on multiple roles. It’s harder to truly buy into the forthcoming tragedy of a 3rd class passenger if we also see them in first class, dining at the Captain’s table.
The act one finale, with the ensemble sounding impeccable under the music direction of James Moore, draws us back in. The cries from the crows nest, the sound of impact with the iceberg and the orchestra reaching a crescendo that the score all too often does not allow them to reach, bring an excitement and tension that make the intermission an unwelcome guest; but also an opportunity to wonder just how Titanic will sink before our eyes.
We start act two with Henry Etches, played by Christopher Mueller, rousing the sleeping passengers in Wake Up, Wake Up! Mueller is the glue of the show and excellent throughout as he displays beautifully crisp vocals and a nuanced acting performance that take us from comedy to tragedy effortlessly.
Our first insight to how the fate of the ship will unfold begins as the lights start to flicker and the chandelier moves suddenly across the ceiling. It’s a simple idea, but a brilliant one, and you can immediately feel the audience inch forwards in their seats. The highlight of the night is shortly upon us as Captain E.J. Smith (Christopher Bloch), Thomas Andrews (Bobby Smith) and J. Bruce Ismay (Lawrence Redmond) perform The Blame. They join Harold Bride, who is attempting to contact nearby ships at his desk (a set change so stealth like it defied immediate explanation) and the three men pace the stage defending their role in the impending disaster while accusing the others. All three are at their passionate best but it’s Smith’s pain we feel the most, in a song that finally allows emotion to replace literal story telling.
We are somewhat robbed of a truly defining sinking moment. Instead we are treated to the most ambitious staging of the night. Luggage, chairs and ultimately passengers descend from the ceiling to create an underwater world, as Smith delivers Mr. Andrew’s Vision telling the story of the sinking. Placing Smith on the lower level from the beginning of the number prevents us from completely immersing ourselves into the watery grave illusion but it’s technically impressive nonetheless.
Ultimately, Titanic is not quite the roller-coaster of raw emotion we want it to be. The declaration that Titanic will sink and the suicide of William Murdoch feel like missed opportunities for poignancy (perhaps longer silence to allow the moments to ‘sink’ in is all that was needed), and there is not enough development of the extended array of characters we have been introduced to on our voyage to be affected by their loss. It is, however, a vocally fantastic show, with a clear and consistent vision that is executed skillfully.
#tothepoint Rating: 82.5/100
You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here
Ticket Price: $94
Value Review: -$24
With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $70. While Theater #tothepoint does not hesitate to recommend this show we encourage you to look for a deal on your ticket price. Titanic continues at Signature through January 29th.