A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The one moment that will linger in my mind no matter what the fate of the new musical Titanic is the scene in Act 2 when the passengers refuse to accept the seriousness of the wake up call that has brought them to the grand salon in their pajamas. They ridicule the alarm with a song "Dressed In Your Pyjamas in the Grand Salon" when suddenly a serving cart goes rolling across the floor--propelled by the listing of the mortally wounded ship. That image epitomizes the drama of the luxury liner that was launched as a symbol of a technological age of possibility and which ended up instead as a symbol of technological hubris.
That little cart epitomizes all the little could've, would've and should'ves that contributed to the ship's sinking--and all the individual lives that were sent into a tailspin when that proud liner began to list. Sure everyone knows how things are going to end, but that little cart, grips your middle and gives you the sense of being in the maelstrom of a terrifying event. What's unanticipated is not the outcome--known to anyone who hasn't been hibernating like Rip Van Winkle--but the realization that you could at any moment be trapped in a melodrama of failed technology. The mystery is that you can speculate but not know how you would act in a comparable situation.
For those to whom this particular disaster story, whether as movie or musical, translates into super-lavish spectacle, Titanic also provides a fair share of memorable, grander moments. The first twenty minutes assembles the large cast into a fabulous tableau representative of the crew and the first, second and third class passengers (quite reminiscent of the grandeur of another musical scored by Maury Yeston, Grand Hotel). The intensely melodic introductory numbers create a fine operatic sense of the real event's 1522 survivors and victims. Victoria Clark as a millionaire-celebrity-struck second class passenger promises a nice touch of opera buffo with her show-stopping musical commentary about who's who among the first class SWELLS. The three Irish Kates (Jennifer Piech, Theresa McCarthy and Erin Hill) also strike a promising note for some entertaining and romantic bits of business. The big-is-better-spectacle lovers will also applaud the triple-screen scene at the end of Act 1 in which the three classes are seen simultaneously.
If you've noticed my use of the word moment, you won't be surprised when I say that Titanic is a musical that provides many momentary pleasures that almost make you forget its shortcomings. To further accentuate the positive--but with notes on the vinegar-y flavor of the production:
The opening's variety of melodies, give the musical its one big-reprise number "In Every Age." However, this is not a show for those who want to exit humming and tapping their feet. Its music is the kind that needs to be heard several times to impress itself into your musical conscience. I can attest to this, having heard the opening songs at a >sneak peek open rehearsal over a month ago and experiencing a pleasing familiarity when I heard it fully orchestrated, and actually finding myself humming "In Every Age" for several days afterwards.
All things considered, Titanic is a hybrid between musical and opera, what's best described as a popera. Unlike other works which fall into this category, the emphasis here is on choral singing (fully orchestrated and very fine choral singing!), with a few standout arias. These include the love duet "Still" sung by Ida (Alma Cuervo) and Isidor Straus (Larry Keith as the founder of Macy's department store); Michael Cerveris' tortured solo, ""Mr. Andrews' Vision" (sung with the boat now at a major tilt and grand pianos not just a lone serving cart slithering across the floor of the grand salon); and the number in which the ship's designer (Michael Cerveris), owner (David Garrison) and captain (John Cunningham) confront each other about responsibility for what's happening ("The Blame"). These numbers are also the ones with the best lyrics.
The lyrics that focus on the ship (like "There She Is" ) tend to underscore Titanic's major flaw--the fact that both the Yeston lyrics and Peter Stone's book fail to build a strong sense of emotional connection between the audience and most of the characters. The stories are easy enough to follow but except for that of Alice Beale and and her husband Edgar (Bill Buell) who clearly isn't the sort of retailer who's going to give her the kind of life that Isador Straus provided his wife, none of the other personal mini-dramas have enough depth to be very meaningful or memorable. The Strauss love story, the stoker's awareness that he's traded one dead-end for another-- (in "Barrett's Song" beautifully sung by Brian d'Arcy James)--, the radio operator's (Martin Moran) excitement at being part of a new profession--it's all there but it flits by and gets lost in the show creators' effort to pack everything the Titanic was and represented into this one show. It's a musical equivalent of Wendy Wasserstein recently opened play An American Daughter --both are well-intentioned and talent-rich, but both dish up a broth so chockfull of ingredients that you miss a unifying flavor.
Not being big on the pyrotechnics of the modern mega-musical, I didn't find the less than splendiferous 1st class dining room and the backdrops and a ship model particularly off-putting or disappointing. In fact, since it's impossible for even the best-financed live show to compete with the movie industry's ability to recreate a disaster like this, I think the money spent on tilting the ship (which is very well done) would have been better put into figuring out a way to have a couple of other dance numbers. "Doing the Latest Rag", while a much needed pick-up at a time when the show threatens to become a tad tedious, isn't going to make this anything but a strictly no-dance musical. It's well choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett and if the show has to live with a single dance, it's certainly the historically correct one to use since1912 was the time when "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was at its height. Still, this quick rag doesn't come off as a smooth fit but instead serves to make you wish for a few other dances. The three Irish Kates, for example, seem to beg for some sort of a dance.
While Director Richard Jones has apparently cut enough scenes during the tryout period to keep the low-energy scenes to a minimum, there are still enough of them in the middle of both acts to make any comments about his direction a case of damning with faint praise. The costumes created under the auspices of Stewart Laing are authentic right to the big, ugly hats (designed to fit over the Irish Washerwoman and other Big Hair coiffures of the day). The attention given to beading and other fine details are unlikely to be visible to anyone not sitting in the first eight rows. The Beales' garish, look-alike pin-striped suits make an apt visual statement about their far-apart vision of life.
With so many musicals steaming into town within days of each other, (three others are still on my to-see-and-review list), I can't at this moment tell those of you looking for one big musical splurge to see this instead of Steel Pier, The Life or Candide. Will you be wasting your money to buy tickets? It depends upon your expectations. If you want a staged super-spectacle reproducing this fabulous ship's every luxurious detail and depicting its crash and sinking with a super bang, you'd better take out a video of the movie made of Walter Lord's A Day to Remember or wait for the $180million movie extravaganza now in the making. If you 're the kind of theater goer who's moved enough by the big little moments like that lone rolling cart, you may be willing to overlook the less-than-perfect stretches for the momentary rewards. The musical score is lovely. The scenery is an interesting mix of splendor and simplicity. The creators' intention to portray the ship as a symbol of an anything is possible future as well as technical humble pie eating, has been realized in many respects.
The show is flawed, but not as fatally flawed as the ill-fated ship that inspired it.