The cast of “Titanic” (Photo by Cory Weaver)
When it first premiered on Broadway 25 years ago, the musical “Titanic” was notoriously beset by production issues, from show-stopping technical glitches to major creative overhauls during previews. With a cast of three dozen, a $10 million budget, and a three-story-high hydraulics-powered set, it is perhaps the height of dramatic irony that the show’s creators chose to tempt fate by mounting a production so massively ambitious in size and scope about this particular subject matter, just hoping it wouldn’t sink itself.
It might be due to that enormous scope that the show hasn’t been more widely done in the decades since. But 10 years ago, the show underwent a reimagining, scaling back the size of the cast to just 20 actors, mounting a more abstract, minimalist set, and eschewing the massive orchestra to include only the instruments that would have been present on the ship itself in 1912. It is this innovatively intimate version of the show that is now running at Music Theater Heritage.
“Titanic” hit Broadway in 1997—just months before the movie of the same name, so any questions (be they concerns or hopes) that this play has anything to do with the James Cameron blockbuster can be set aside. The play centers instead around a large ensemble of crew and passengers, both imagined and based on real historical figures, exploring the meaning of the American Dream as it manifests within a rigid class structure, all through the lens of looming, inevitable tragedy.
This scaled-back “Titanic” is a true ensemble piece. Rather than any real main characters, the show cycles between characters, relationships, and socio-economic classes, as physically divided by floor aboard the enormous ship. The throughline between all of them is the chasing of dreams. For some, this means money and status, for others, it’s the emotional and economic security of love and marriage. For the ship’s captain, who is on what he believes will be his final voyage (though not for the inevitable reasons), it’s simply rest and retirement. The closest thing the show has to an antagonist (besides nature itself) is the ship’s money man, who is chasing his own dream of fiscal success in demanding the vessel go as fat as possible, despite the warnings of all experts on board.
That’s not to say that there aren’t standouts among the characters and the show’s skilled cast. Arthur Clifford lands the show’s biggest comedic moments as the ship’s telegraph operator and executes them perfectly. The three Irish women, all named Kate (Chelcie Abercrombie, Abigail Becker, Olivia Bosaw), whose biggest dreams peak at being hired as a seamstress or a lady’s maid in the New World, are also especially captivating—although this is a show where each audience member is bound to feel especially invested in a different character or storyline, and luckily there are enough of those to give everyone something suited to their specific desires.
The impact of the show’s intimate aesthetic is fully realized via its design elements. While I’m sure that original Broadway run was impressive, it’s hard to imagine needing more than Mark A. Exline’s simple set, made up of elegantly draped fabric backdrops and the most basic outline of a grand staircase, with Amanda Zieve’s lighting transporting us from the depths of the fiery coal-shoveling floors to the open sea, and all the levels in between. Nancy Robinson’s costumes are lovely and the choice to have only a few skilled musicians (Alyssa Bell, Joey Panella, Alla Wijnands, Dana Woolard Hughlett) live on stage throughout is an effective touch of immersive depth. Maybe the only faltering point is that there is no dialect coach listed in the program, and given the wide range of character backgrounds in what is largely a story of disparate immigrants, it could have used one to smooth out some of the rougher edges.
Ultimately, this is an overwhelmingly successful triumph of a little-seen gem of a show, led by Artistic Director Tim Scott.
“Titanic” runs through July 3 at MTH’s Grand Theater (4th Floor) at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd. For more information, call (816) 221-6987 or visit musictheaterheritage.com