Monday, February 27, 2006


The shake down cruise of “Titanic: the Musical,” with story and book by Peter Stone, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston set sail at the Davis Musical Theater’s Hoblit Performing Arts Center on Friday night, under direction and musical direction of Steve Isaacson. Like the great ship whose story it tells, the production is not without its flaws. It has some fixable problems and some non-fixable problems, but in those moments when it all comes together it is downright glorious.

It is evident from the moment one enters the theater and sees the size and complexity of the set (designed by Michael McElroy, who also designed the lights and plays (appropriately) Thomas Andrews, the builder of the Titanic, in the show itself) that this is a show which could never have been produced at the old Varsity Theater. Even without all the technical elements necessary to sink a giant ocean liner several nights a week, the size of the set alone would not have been possible at the Varsity. The ability to affix things semi-permanently to the walls provided for a rock-solid set.

The 14 piece orchestra, under the direction of Jonathan Rothman, got off to a shaky start in the overture but quickly warmed to the task at hand as the show progressed.

Jeannie Henderson’s costumes are, as always, exquisite.

This is not a plot show. Well, other than the obvious plot about the ship itself. There are no characters in whose lives we get deeply involved. Nobody stands at the bow of the ship proclaiming himself to be “king of the world.” If there is hanky panky going on below deck, we don’t see it. It is more an opportunity to get a glimpse into the lives of the first, second, and third class passengers of the great ship, the meet its crew and then to see how they all handle the terrible tragedy that is about to befall them.

A show this big requires a big cast and DMTC may have assembled its biggest to date. There are 47 actors, some of them doing double duty to fill out the sound of choruses.

Collectively, they are exquisite. When all the passengers are ready to set sail and then launch into “Godspeed Titanic” I literally had tears in my eyes. I think it was a combination of the fact that it was such a full, beautiful sound--and the fact that these were people who were about to meet their death.

However, among the cast there are 44 named characters and many of those characters have either short solos or long solos. Some are not quite up to solo quality voices.

Ben Bruening as J. Bruce Ismay, owner of the Titanic, has never sounded better vocally, though I would have liked a bit less intensity in his portrayal of the man whose only thought was getting the ship to port in the fastest possible time and damn the passengers’ safety.

Richard Spierto was a properly regal Captain E. J. Smith. He has a commanding presence and a good voice and was a perfect choice for the role.

Brian McCann is excellent as Henry Etches, the 1st Class Steward, perhaps at his best “Doing the Latest Rag” (with choreography by Ron Cisneros).

It was fun seeing Davis theater veteran Jill Wright back on stage again as Caroline Neville. She’s as lovely and as talented as she ever was.

Lauren Miller was outstanding as Alice Beane, the starstruck wife of Edgar (Marc Valdez). Alice knows all the facts about all the 1st class passengers and it is her dream to rub elbows with the wealthy while aboard the ship.

There are many technical aspects to this show which simply didn’t work. I am assuming the glitches will be ironed out during the run of the show. An inordinate number of lighting mistakes were made on opening night, from lighting the wrong side of the stage to plunging the whole house into darkness to leaving a soloist in the dark as he sang his solo. It’s a complicated light plot, and I’m sure that this is going to begin to run more smoothly.

There are also video projections which didn’t work at all. The time line projected onto the proscenium was crooked and up much too high to be noticed, much less read, though this already appeared better by the second act. Likewise, there were various newspaper headline articles about the sinking of the ship which were projected onto the curtain and which were much too dark to be read from the audience.

There was also the matter of a stubborn tea cart which is the focus at a crucial moment, and which did not behave as it should.

But when things worked as intended, it was wonderful, and the sight of McElroy standing on the tilted deck of the ship he built trying to decide, in his last remaining moments of life, where he had gone wrong, it was worth it all.

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