Titanic, Inventively leaner, and yet richer than before.

Published: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 7:00 am By: Eugene Paul Source: Theater Scene.net

Titanic, the massive, costly, musical extravaganza, with a huge orchestra and a cast of forty, garnered five Tony awards seventeen years ago, in 1997, and ran for over 800 expensive performances in New York City alone, everyone so overwhelmed with its spectacle that it took some enthralled listening to fully appreciate the strength of Maury Yeston’s wonderful score. Now that appreciation is in full swing and multiple stirrings are afoot to launch Titanic anew on the Broadway waves, this time, inventively leaner, and yet richer than before.

Now, in their celebration fortieth year, Bill Stutler and Bob Funking, the producers of Westchester Broadway Theatre (this is their 183rd production!) have jumped aboard early and are presenting a vigorous, strongly musical, lean, handsome production, true in every important particular to the original. The massive sets are suggested, and an inspired cast under director Don Stephenson’s passionate yet fitful vision launches the show wonderfully.

It’s April, 1912, and proud, awestruck passengers gaze in wonder at this marvel, this unsinkable wonder of their world, the greatest ship since Noah’s Ark. They are bursting with enthusiasm at the chance to be part of history, the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Director Stephenson and his company have everything right; we shake our heads in our sad, wise wonder at their innocence; we know what happened and it’s touching and tearful and joyful all jumbled together. Of course, they don’t know, how could they, of course, they’re preparing for adventure and delight, we would be, too. How wonderful, how sad, and the music says it all.

Composer- lyricist Maury Yeston meant for his musical to reflect the times, the early zest of the twentieth century, overlaid with the coming out of the stately Edwardian English era but ready for the New Thing, and it all comes out in the songs: “How Did They Build the Titanic?,” “There She Is,” “What a Remarkable Age This Is.” Then, in a dramatic shift to the lives of the people on board, we see inside of the first officer Murdoch (Jonathan Brody) as he sings of the fearful burdens in “To Be a Captain,” responsibilities he couldn’t bear, and we know that he’s right to be afraid. Inflated with ego, one of the owners, Mr. Ismay (Adam Heller), chairman of the great White Star Line, demands greater and greater speed. And we know … to where. Then, in third class, the three Kates sing of their ambitions and we know they’ll never come true. In second class, the young lovers, eloping, plight their troth in “I Give You My Hand” and we know, we know.

The full cast of Titanic at Westchester Broadway Theatre
(Photo credit: John Vecchiolla)

Which lends Peter Stone’s book for this musical, this operetta, a depth still to be explored by director Stephenson, who allows the deliberately old-fashioned book structure to assume show stoppers when we want the show to flow smoothly with its bright, original impetus. Yes, “Doing the Latest Rag” is fun, delightful fun, and yes, it’s good fun that Alice from Second Class wants to hobnob with the swells in First Class and crashes their dance party, yet somehow the loveliest song in the show, “Autumn,” gets lost in the staging which is building toward the crash into the iceberg we all know has to happen, but these book pauses are just detours; the show’s too good to leave at that.

After the deadly crash, Act Two finds the passengers unbelieving. They’re gone to bed, they don’t want what they assume is this boat drill. Little by little the reality of what was deemed impossible builds toward panic, driving everything. There’s tense grimness as the minutes tick by and no rescue. They are going to sink in these icy waters and the passengers are in their night clothes. At first they think it’s funny, even daring, to be “Dressed in Their Night Clothes in the Grand Salon,” but the deadly realities shock them: there are over 2000 passengers on the ship but life boats for only half of them, those life boats they were never going to need. The designer of the great ship, Andrews, the owner, Ismay, the Captain, rail at each, other passing the blame for this unnecessary disaster in “The Blame,” a corker of a number. Then, an unforgettable moment. Mrs Strauss, wife of Isador Strauss, owner of Macy’s great department store, refuses to leave her husband. She will remain on board with him to the end. I wish their song were staged less operatically, more personally but it’s powerful as ever.

This whole company – they give and give, a WBT trademark – convinces us that Titanic belongs up there among the great American musicals, along with Oklahoma!, with South Pacific, with Show Boat. Outstanding are William Parry as Captain Smith, Tom Hewitt as ship designer Andrews, Xander Chauncey as stoker Barrett, Drew McVety as Etches, Ben Estus as the young bellboy. Derek Lockwood and Ryan Moller have dressed the company handsomely and Ian Weinberger’s musical direction creates a warm, clean score. Expect to see more of Titanic. We’re ready.

Titanic (thorough February 23, 2014)
Westchester Broadway Theatre, 1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY 10523
For tickets, call 914-592-2222 or visit http://www.broadwaytheatre.com
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission