Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Theater Review: TITANIC: The Musical @ Signature Theatre

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 00:49

As I mentioned during my review of the 2015 production of TITANIC in Toronto, sometimes, perhaps rarer than usual, theater grabs a hold of you and makes a truly indelible impression. For me, that occurrence came with the original 1997 Broadway production of TITANIC: A New Musical. As a young man of 19, it was the first show I had ever seen on the Great White Way; and it has forever lived in my heart as one of my absolute most favorite life experiences The show, which many believed was doomed from the start (after all, who would want to watch a musical about the famed ocean liner that’s fate is well, pretty well darned known?), became a surprise hit. Winning 5 Tony Awards, TITANIC proved it was the Unsinkable Molly Brown, taking home statues for Best Orchestrations, Best Score, Best Scenic Design, Best Book, and the coveted prize for Best Musical. The show ran for almost two years at the Lunt Fontanne Theater. And it was a juggernaut for actors who would go on to become major Broadway players. Victoria Clark, Michael Cerveris, and Brian D’Arcy James all had main roles.

But as the popularity of TITANIC the film started to dwindle, the musical shuttered on March 21, 1999. However, the show has been considered by many to be a major contribution to the repertoire of American musical theater. Rex Reed commented in his review of the original production that he believed he was watching, “A genuine addition to the American musical theater.” Reed was correct. The show has proven itself as an iconic work and lived on through numerous incarnations of the show–including a national tour, productions across the globe, and most recently at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, Canada in the Summer of 2015. The Toronto production, which opened May 19th, 2015 was based on an acclaimed chamber version of the show which ran in London’s Off-West End Southwark Playhouse in 2013. That show was so well received, there were plans to run it in Toronto in 2014 and bring it back to Broadway in 2015. Unfortunately, official word was producers were unable to find a house for the show; and plans were scrapped.

So, until TITANIC is able to rightly take its place back on the Broadway stage once again, it lives on in regional productions, including the scaled down, yet beautiful, production at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. The actors, many of whom play multiple roles, are spectacular. As an ensemble, they are spine-chillingly perfect. Some of the individual performers really stand out. Christopher Block portrays Captain EJ Smith perhaps even more convincingly than original Broadway cast member John Cunningham. He has the mannerisms of the famed Captain down exquisitely.

Bobby Smith, whose absolutely gorgeous and powerful voice fills the theater during each of his scenes, proves he is a veteran performer with the talent and ability to back it. Lawrence Redmond’s Ismay is just as effective. And Nick Lehan, playing wireless operator Harold Bride, displays an incredible range of dynamic vocal quality, that makes up for some of the shortcomings in the dynamic range of Sam Ludwig, who plays Barrett among other roles. Their duet, “The Night Was Alive” has always been my favorite number and scene from the show; and Lehan’s sweet and ranging style provides the perfect blend with Ludwig’s more direct and less dynamic voice during the song.

Florence Lacy, as Ida Strauss, is  complimented by the equally capable John Leslie Wolfe as husband Isidor, amazingly. Their duet “Still,” showcases the love the characters had for one another as they decided to die together rather than occupy a space in a lifeboat. Finally, Chris Sizemore and Iyona Blake, though strangely coupled as second class soon-to-be spouses Charles Clarke and Caroline Neville, amazingly make the audience forget their age and racial difference (which is only signifiant because it would more than likely not have existed during the early 1900’s). Neville has a beautiful operatic quality to her voice that is complimented incredibly well by Sizemore. Their number, “I Give You My Hand,” cut from the original Broadway production, is restored beautifully here. While I was originally skeptical of the duo; their performances quickly silenced any fear of anachronism I may have originally had.

Perhaps one aspect in which the show is lacking is its sets. The set is punctuated by several ramps  that transverse through several stories throughout the theater, reflecting various entry points to the ship. While this provides scale to the production, most of the action takes place on the main stage, which is often barren sans a very small number of props. So, scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III leaves a LOT to audiences’ imagination. That works to a certain extent in the theater; but leaving the audience with too much responsibility to fill in the scenic gaps can cheapen the effectiveness of a show. The original production was lauded for its incredible sets. Stewart Laing won the Tony Award for a set that did the unthinkable–SANK! Of course, with large set pieces, props, and costumes (designed by Frank Labovitz and which are somewhat basic in this production), comes enormous expense that regional theaters’ budgets simply don’t have as much space for.

However where the show lacks in sets and costumes, it more than makes up for where it counts–THE BEAUTIFUL MAURY YESTON SCORE!!! Unlike the Toronto production, which utilized a tiny 6-person orchestra, Signature has opted to use a full orchestra to provide the score. THAT ALONE MAKES THIS PRODUCTION WORTH SEEING MORE THAN ONCE! The richness of that amazing score is performed EXACTLY the way it should be! It was so incredibly nice to hear every musical nuance of the production, with an amazingly capable cast of musicians. The woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion are blended flawlessly in Yeston’s work; and it is so incredibly refreshing to hear it all here! Josh Clayton (orchestrations), James Moore (musical direction), and Ryan Hickey (sound design) demonstrate the addition of woodwinds and brass to the arrangement of heavy strings augments heavily the more nautical feel of the show.

There are also some very smart, subtle, and intelligent changes to the book that bolster the quality and flow of the musical. Some lines, delivered by different characters in this production compared to the original, provide a fresh take on the work. The final scene of the original show, which I truly believe was the best final scene ever written for the theater, is less effective with the staging employed here. The characters are moreso joined by the dead, spaced throughout the set, rather than reunited with them, as seen in the original and subsequent productions of the show. Yet the ensemble makes the audience quickly overlook that with their sweepingly powerful and beautiful vocals.

TITANIC truly deserves a life on Broadway. I am really hoping that somehow, that happens! The quality of what is on-stage in Arlington right now is truly amazing. And while Broadway is ever-increasingly cutthroat and ever so reliant on the rehashing of cartoon movies and movie musicals, TITANIC could be a real welcomed breath of fresh air.  TITANIC plays at the Signature Theatre through January 29th. For tickets, visit the show’s official Web site @: http://www.sigtheatre.org/events/2016-17/titanic/. Below, watch highlights of the show, courtesy of Signature Theatre:

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