The Ship Still Sinks, But Re-imagined 'Titanic' Soars!

Published: Thursday, January 30, 2014 11:00 am By: JOHN P. MCCARTHY

Twinkling stars on the moonless night of April 15, 1912, could evoke the vastness of the universe and a sense of mankind’s insignificance, but in the scaled-down version of the 1997 musical “Titanic” at Westchester Broadway Theatre, this eerily beautiful sight suggests something different. Each soul on the doomed ship has meaning and value, regardless of their station in life and whether they live or die.

If the original Broadway production was dominated by mechanized stagecraft, this poignant yet powerful revamp celebrates every light in the human firmament. Tony-winning composer and lyricist Maury Yeston, together with a team led by director Don Stephenson, aimed for a more intimate, chamber version of “Titanic.”

They succeeded.

The engrossing new show will be accessible to theater groups lacking the budget for a colossal vessel that can shudder and tilt on cue. Yet rejiggering “Titanic” wasn’t risk-free, especially since the challenge of turning a notorious disaster into uplifting entertainment remains. Fortunately, the show’s perennial themes — romance, socio-economic mobility, the perils of technological change — gain resonance.

Created at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre, this “Titanic” heads to Broadway come fall after tryouts in Toronto. There’s more work to be done — on sustaining the narrative momentum, primarily — but the forecast is good. As before, it’s a true ensemble piece. The 20-member cast features talented vets and newcomers, 16 of whom tackle multiple roles.

Four key couples embark on the maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. In 1st Class: Macy’s Department store owner Isidor Strauss (David Studwell) and his wife Ida (Kaye Walbye). In 2nd Class: Alice Beane (Donna English), who aspires to hobnob with the super rich, and spouse Edgar (Philip Hoffman); plus socially mismatched British lovers Charles and Caroline (Noah Plomgren and Patricia Noonan). And in steerage: working-class Kate (Sarah Charles) and Jim (John Langley) prepare to chase the American dream.

Everyone is awed by the ocean liner’s size, including its architect (Tom Hewitt), a boiler room stoker (Xander Chauncey), an enthusiastic radioman (Jeremy Ellison-Gladstone), and a solicitous steward (Drew McVety). Embodying the hubris of capitalism is the chairman of the White Star Line (Adam Heller), who constantly prods weary Captain Smith (William Parry) to increase their speed.

Musical director Ian Weinberger’s arrangements convey the lush, nautical ebb and flow of Yeston’s score with only a six-person orchestra. And while the Debussy-meets-Sondheim music isn’t necessarily a vocal showcase, the singing is marvelous.

Kudos to Stephenson and choreographer Liza Genaro for their handling of the big numbers. One important moment is rendered too abstractly, however; and it’s unclear why some movements are mimed while others get the aid of props. Derek Lockwood and Ryan Moller’s rich period costumes never contravene the project’s minimalist aesthetic, which sets most of the action on a bare stage.

Images are projected onto a framing arch and a backdrop of white panels resembling the steel siding of a scrapped vessel. They include excerpts from the captain’s log, black-and-white photos of actual passengers and, most movingly, the time-of-day following Titanic’s encounter with the iceberg.

The notion that tragedy and musical theater don’t mix was belied by “Titanic’s” 804-performance Broadway run. Its journey back to the Great White Way could be scuttled, of course. But whatever transpires, Yeston and company’s willingness to adapt the material is admirable. So is their belief that our capacity for hope can be as dazzling as the stars above or the spectacle of watching a luxurious “floating city” sink to the bottom of the sea.