Dallas — In its original production in 1997, the Broadway musical Titanic demanded a massive set and hefty cast of principals. This weekend, a co-production by Uptown Players theater company and the Turtle Creek Chorale men’s chorus, two organizations with close ties to Dallas’ LGBT community, neatly distills that massive musical into a self-described “concert” version at Dallas City Performance Hall, preserving, and, arguably enhancing the epic quality of the score.
When playwright Peter Stone and composer-lyricist Maury Yeston created the show in 1997, they were merely the latest to contribute to a huge body of response to the notorious shipwreck of April 15, 1912. The public fascination with this disaster, in which 1514 men, women, and children drowned (two-thirds of the total population of the ship, including most of the men onboard, as well as a majority of women and children in third class) has remained almost unabated since the event: the enduring irony of the sinking of a ship widely touted as “unsinkable,” as well as the needless loss of lives, continues to fascinate as a monument to human folly, the failure of technology, and the unpredictability of sudden tragedy in our lives.
Concern for manmade climate change was still just emerging in 1997, and the role of corporate greed in that situation was hardly considered at the time. But, along with drawing a big historical tapestry, Yeston and Stone produced a parable of the increasing disaster the Earth is facing, in which unbridled profit-taking continues to push the entire planet closer and closer to catastrophe. It’s hard to watch and hear this musical without feeling that the only planet we have has become the Titanic, with the owners of the technology careening full speed ahead—just as the desire for impressive speed mandated by the owners pushed that ill-fated boat into the unnecessary danger of ice-infested waters. The clash of classes, with the extremely privileged shielded from the struggles of the lower classes just a few feet away, likewise feels even more relevant in the top-heavy economy of 2017 than in 1997.
The massive, epic quality of the original Broadway show are part of what makes Titanic a particularly worthy subject for production in a semi-staged version such as Uptown Players and Turtle Creek Chorale produced here. Composer Yeston reached back to a Broadway style similar to the late 1950s and early 1960s—the introduction of rock influences and the musical innovations of Lloyd Webber and Sondheim might as well never have happened in this show, which has, stylistically, more in common with Camelot and The Sound of Music than with the new shows of the 1990s, or, for that matter, the 1970s or 1980s. The huge choral scenes, indeed, make Titanic very nearly an oratorio, which is close to how this production presents it, with a mixed chorus of 95 voices ranged at the back half of the stage, directed by Sean Mikel Baugh. And those grand musical moments the show offers come off impressively and movingly in this version.
Semi-staged and concert versions of dramatic musical works, from opera to Broadway shows, have become an increasingly significant part of the world of opera, theater, and even orchestral concerts in recent years; we’ve become so used to the magical digital effects of cinema that we don’t expect opulent realism in live performance where no special effects can match what the movies offer anyway.
This production, with sets by Michelle Harvey, provides a high-impact visual experience to match the music and multi-faceted drama playing out. Suzi Cranford’s costumes are particularly effective in the representation of character, while Scott Guenther’s lighting and multi-media effects contribute magnificently to the emotional effect—especially at the point in which the audience experiences, visually, the sensation of falling beneath the waves. Director Cheryl Denson keeps the characters moving with unabated energy on top of this old-fashioned score; the combination of digital and acoustic instruments in the pit, directed by Kevin Gunter, provided a worthy accompaniment, with plenty of fine effects and very little of the ugly noise generally associated with digital orchestration.
This gigantic story demands a huge cast: the program lists a grand total of 45 roles. Yeston and Stone created (as in the very famous movie versions) a combination of fictional and historical figures (the latter including John Jacob Astor IV, Isidor Struass, and Benjamin Guggenheim, although Yeston and Stone omitted Margaret Brown, aka “Unsinkable Molly Brown”). Although it’s hard to pinpoint a particular headline “star,” David Meglino is believably evil as the chairman of the board of the company that owned the ship, while James Williams is a commanding presence as the tortured captain. Among many other excellent performances, Sarah Gay is the most memorable, combining humor and pathos as the party-crashing, social-climbing second-class passenger Alice Beane, who desperately wants to experience the grandeur of the wealthy in first class. Laura Lites makes the most of the impetuous and troubled Irish immigrant Katie McGowan.
Multiple subplots converge but never crowd the progression of the narrative; playwright Stone took on the challenge of a story that we all know the end of by giving us the motivation of figuring out who will survive, while outlining the transformation of all of these characters in the face of disaster. In an interesting plot strategy, the climax—the separation of those who go on lifeboats from those who don’t—comes a little over halfway through the second act of this two-act show; this allows for an extended and highly effective denouement, recapping and closing the multitude of subplots. Probably the one element of the show that doesn’t hold up entirely convincingly 20 years after the premiere is the puzzlingly triumphant final moment—West Side Story and Gypsy, among a few other shows, proved long ago that you don’t need a big happy blast to bring the curtain down successfully. Other than that inherent flaw in the show, this is a magnificently fine and effective production of a show that, for better or worse, feels as relevant as ever 20 years later.