April 25, 2018

Broadway Musical “Titanic” Is Presented at Kelsey Theatre; Show Examines Command Decisions, Passengers’ Lifestyles

“TITANIC”: Performances are underway for Playful Theatre Productions’ presentation of “Titanic.” Directed by Frank Ferrara, the musical runs through April 29 at the Kelsey Theatre. Above: Some of the affluent passengers on the ill-fated ship, and the cast members who portray them. (Photomontage designed by Ruth Kresge)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Titanic is being presented at the Kelsey Theatre. Audiences who liked the James Cameron film should enjoy the Broadway musical, which covers the same history with a different emphasis. The show examines the decisions leading up to the sinking of the ship, on April 15, 1912. It also surveys the lifestyles and romantic aspirations of the passengers and crew whose lives were affected by those choices.

The stage show is unconnected with the film, though both premiered in 1997. (The musical opened eight months earlier than the movie. Both won numerous awards; the stage show won the Tony for Best Musical, and the film won the Oscar for Best Picture.)

The musical’s story and book are by the late Peter Stone, with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Musical theatre aficionados who are partial to shows written during Broadway’s mid-century “golden age” likely will appreciate Yeston’s score. Not unlike Sondheim, Yeston largely eschews the contemporary pop idiom in favor of a musical vocabulary that evokes the Edwardian period. However, fans of Lloyd Webber-style pop operas will enjoy romantic ballads such as “The Proposal.”

Like the film, the show depicts the excitement preceding the Titanic’s voyage, and the agony that follows the ship’s collision with the iceberg. The overture conveys this dual mood, though in the reverse order. A foreboding introduction segues into the melody of a celebratory anthem, “Godspeed Titanic.” Jonathan Tunick’s arrangements are performed well by this orchestra, conducted by Michael Gilch.

Both the musical and the film present Thomas Andrews, the naval architect who oversaw the design of the Titanic, as a decent, contemplative character. He begins the show by soliloquizing about his creation. “In every age, mankind attempts to fabricate great works, at once magnificent and impossible,” he sings philosophically. “Our task was to dream upon, and then create, a floating city.” Patrick O’Leary’s portrayal of Andrews is an apt mixture of introspection and defensiveness.

Upon arriving at the dock in Southampton, stoker Fred Barrett sings “How Did They Build Titanic?” as he marvels at the ship’s construction. Telegraph operator Harold Bride and lookout Frederick Fleet join him in admiring the “ship of dreams.”

As the characters sing about the ship’s conception, images of designs and calculations are projected on a screen—a device similar to that used in television series such as Da Vinci’s Demons and The Librarians. This use of multimedia could have been developed further, though the creative team wisely avoids letting it become a distraction.

J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line—which owns the Titanic—joins Andrews; so does Captain E.J. Smith. These powerful men congratulate each other on their part in running the world’s “Largest Moving Object.”

With anticipation the third and second class passengers board the ship. They are followed by the first class passangers, whose names and accomplishments are recited by Alice Beane. Alice is a second class passenger who dreams of being in first class—to the dismay of her husband Edgar, a hardware store owner who is satisfied with his position.

With her comic delivery, Gina Migliaccio stands out as Alice. Jeff Dworkin brings an aura of reserve to Edgar, making him an ideal counterpart. Evan Bilinski’s performance as Henry Samuel Etches, one of the stewards, is marked by his ability to deliver with clear diction a Gilbert & Sullivan-esque patter song in which Etches details the preferences of the first class passengers.

As the ship departs, the excited company sings “Godspeed Titanic.” The ensemble delivers an exquisite performance of this paean, which evokes Elgar or Vaughan Williams. The choral singing is a high point of this production.

Ismay enters the bridge to tell Smith and Andrews that he wants the Titanic to arrive in New York on Tuesday instead of Wednesday, to bolster the reputation of the already formidable ship. Andrews objects; his priority is that the voyage be safe. Smith shares Andrews’ concern, but to placate Ismay he orders a slight increase in speed.

Barrett complies, though he harbors misgivings similar to those expressed by Andrews. In the boiler room, Barrett sees firsthand the strenuous demands on both the stokers and the ship’s machinery. To the role of Barrett, tenor CJ Carter brings the passion that marked his performance as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The lighting by Judi Parrish effectively evokes the heat of the boiler room.

While the first class passengers revel in the newsworthy accomplishments and inventions of the time, the Irish women in third class—all of whom are named Kate — sing about their aspirations to pursue vocations such as a “Lady’s Maid.” This number features an astute bit of staging; as the characters sing about the possibility of rising in social stature, they stand on boxes. Kate McGowan is in love with Jim Farrell, a young man traveling in steerage.

Despite warnings of icebergs in the area, as well as Andrews’ objections, Ismay continues to bully Smith into increasing the ship’s speed. To Smith, Elio Edward Lleo brings a rich, commanding baritone. Michael Crea’s use of body language makes clear that Ismay is completely consumed by his quest for more speed; he authoritatively strides across the stage.

On the morning of April 15, the first class passengers attend a worship service, then dance — in circles — to “The Latest Rag.” Nicole Farina Machin’s choreography manages to be festive while reminding the audience that, cavernous though the Titanic is, it still is a confining space.

In the evening, there is “No Moon,” a condition that makes it difficult for lookout Fredrick Fleet to spot icebergs. On deck, Farrell agrees to marry Kate McGowan, who is carrying the child of a married man. Elderly passengers Isidor and Rosalie Ida Straus reflect on their changing world, while Charlotte Drake Cardoza shocks the men in first class by joining them in the Smoke Room for a card game.

Fleet warns the bridge that he has spotted an iceberg. Murdoch attempts evasive action, but it is too late. Evan Paine’s sound design works in tandem with Yeston’s music, which by turns is eerily calm and intense, to make the sequence in which the Titanic hits the iceberg a terrifying one.

The entr’acte restates the melodic material of “How Did They Build Titanic?” It is a cutting bit of musical irony, as that question now is painfully irrelevant.

Smith orders the passengers to wear life vests, and Bride to send distress messages. Andrews warns Smith and Ismay that the damage is greater than the ship is designed to withstand, and reminds them that the number of lifeboats is only enough for less than half of the people on board.

In the radio room, Bride informs Smith that the Carpathia is the only ship in the area, but it will not arrive until after the ship has sunk. Ismay, Smith and Andrews argue over who deserves “The Blame,” in a number that is reminiscent of “Your Fault” from Into the Woods.

The women and children are sent “To the Lifeboats,” while most of the men are compelled to stay behind. However, Ida refuses to leave Isador. There is a warm chemistry between Peter Sauer and Kristin Keenan; they make “Still,” the ballad in which the elderly couple affirms their love, into a highlight of the show.

Titanic succeeds thanks to careful choices made by its writers. Although the nominal subject is a ship—a piece of machinery—the script’s emphasis is where it needs to be: humanity. Specifically, it considers the aspects of human nature—both good and bad—that are on display as the ship meets its fate.

This production’s creative team has been equally judicious in their decisions. They wisely have not attempted to depict the sinking of the ship by using elaborate special effects. It would be unnecessary, because the writing and performances are sufficient to convey the harrowing urgency of the situation.

Bryan Schendlinger’s two-tier set effectively accentuates the separation between Captain Smith (as well as Ismay and Andrews), and the passengers and crew. The costumes by Michelle Rittmann are attractive and evoke the period; Rittmann’s color palette consists primarily of white, grey, and brown—though there are splashes of red and light blue.

Director Frank Ferrara’s staging is notable for the difference in the way scenes are blocked in the two acts. In the first act, passengers and crew members are spread all over the ship, which feels comfortably inhabited. In the second act, groupings of passengers are claustrophobic, and class segregation is more prevalent. Conversely, Smith and Andrews spend most of the first act standing on the level above the other characters, but in the second act they join Bride on stage.

Unlike the voyage itself, the musical is successful. In this presentation by Playful Theatre Productions, the show’s literate libretto and melodic score are given a strong performance by a talented ensemble.

Presented by Playful Theatre Productions, “Titanic” will play at the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road in West Windsor, through April 29. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 530-3333.