Titanic

On paper, any musicalisation of the story of the Titanic looks like sailing to disaster. The story is so well known, it has been done so often, from the classic British movie ‘A Night to Remember’ to Julian Fellowes recent miniseries, where it would have been more interesting to watch the iceberg. Further than that, the conjunction of epic disaster and characters bursting into song seems a non-starter as a concept. Why on earth should anyone sing? One thinks of Trevor Nunn’s awful ‘Gone With the Wind’.

Maury Yeston triumphantly answers the doubters in his inventive, tuneful and humane score. The reason people sing is that they have dreams; dreams ranging from the vision of a floating city which powers shipbuilder, captain and owner, to the prospect of a new and better life for the emigrants in Third Class. This is laid out right at the start, in ‘In Every Age’, a stirring anthem to man’s imagination and ingenuity to achieve the ‘magnificent and impossible’.

The first act is largely exposition, introducing us to a daunting number of characters – crew and passengers – and to the mind-boggling facts about the ship (36,000 oranges, 50 tons of potatoes). Out of these, key figures slowly come into focus – in first class the owner of Macy’s, Isador Straus and his wife Ida; in second Alice Beane yearning for the kudos and luxury of first; in third, Kate begs Jim to marry her because she’s carrying a child by a man already married. Throughout the crew ignore menacing omens of the disaster which also darken the music. It is expertly orchestrated, in all senses.

Act Two, post-collision, is more of a challenge, in that there is both spectacle and a huge amount of frenetic action to encompass. The danger is that music will get in the way, slow things down. But again Yeston rises to the occasion, taking advantage of that curious calm hiatus for those resigned to death in two very effective ballads, the Straus’s ‘Still’ and the designer’s ‘Mr Andrew’s Vision’. He also dramatises brilliantly the confusion in the mutual recriminations of ‘The Blame’. Perhaps the biggest challenge is, how to end the show. Broadway requires an upbeat ending, but in the face of the appalling tragedy almost anything in that vein would seem inane. Yeston reprises ‘In Every Age’, and manages both a deep irony and an assertion of the eternal potency of the dream.

‘Titanic’ won 1997 Tonys for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score, despite very mixed reviews. And rightly so. The music draws on the spirit of the music of 1912, from Elgar to Irving Berlin, but still manages a unique voice. The book deftly weaves the story of the ship and the characters, drawing out the class distinctions between first class and steerage, although out of the huge cast of principals some fail to register as strongly as others and there is little room for development.

Wisely, Thom Southerland’s production opts for simplicity. A bare stage, a row of riveted iron plates, an elevated walkway which serves as the ship’s bridge and a talloscope make up the whole set. This creates both the physical and metaphorical distances between crew and passengers, class and class. The actual sinking is achieved by the simplest of means and is all the more moving for that. He moves his cast of 20 – something of a nightmare for a small theatre - deftly and unobtrusively around the stage.

In an ensemble cast, many taking multiple roles, it is perhaps invidious to single out individuals, but Dudley Rogers and Judith Street have the most effective moment in their lovely reaffirmation of love, ‘Still’, and seize it with both hands. Rarely has there been a more effective illustration of the loveliness of older voices in all their moving fragility.

Elsewhere, some of the cast have problems with audibility. What should be the First Act showstopper, ‘Doing the Latest Rag’, is marred by garbling of the tongue-twisting lyric and in ‘Mr Andrew’s Vision’, a potential dramatic high spot of Act Two, Greg Castiglioni lacks the technical skill to project at low volume, with the result that some of the meaning is lost. Throughout the ensemble, musical work is uniformly excellent, and Yeston’s complex and seductive harmonies come across to spine-tingling effect.

This is the first English production of ‘Titanic’, but the 15-year wait has been well worth it. The production is an object lesson in the value of musical theatre on the Fringe, reviving and premiering work on a small scale which really demands to be seen. A standing ovation greeted the curtain call.

Reviews by Peter Scott-Presland

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The Blurb

In the final hour of 14th April 1912 the RMS Titanic, on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, collided with an iceberg and ‘the unsinkable ship’ slowly sank. It was one of the most tragic disasters of the 20th Century. 1517 men, women and children lost their lives.

Based on actual characters aboard the greatest ship in the world, Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel, Phantom) and Peter Stone’s stunning musical focuses on their hopes and aspirations. Unaware of the fate that awaits them, the Third Class immigrants dream of a better life in America, the newly-enfranchised Second Class dream of achieving the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the millionaire Barons of the First Class dream of their hegemony lasting forever.

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