"Titanic" Sails Again

Culture Watch
tags: Titanic, play reviews

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Westchester Broadway Theater
1 Broadway Plaza
Elmsford, N.Y.

The 1997 movie Titanic, about the sinking of the world’s largest cruise liner on April 14, 1912, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, was one of the most successful films of all time and its theme song, My Heart Will Go On, brought tears to millions. The stage musical Titanic, that came out in 1997, just before the movie debuted, did not fare as well even though it won the Tony award as Best Musical. There were production problems with its massive three level set, a huge cast that drained the budget and inevitable comparisons to the film.

Now, Titanic sails again in a mostly triumphant voyage (no play on words intended) at the Westchester Broadway Theater in Elmsford, just north of New York City. It is a re-staging of the 1997 Broadway show with a much minimalist set, a reduced cast and tighter book with less music. This new version had a successful staging in London. After its Westchester run, it is headed to Toronto and then, hopefully, back to Broadway again next year.

The new musical is deftly directed by Don Stephenson, with choreography by Liza Genaro and musical direction by Ian Weinberger. Stephenson uses the theater’s thrust stage (patrons sit on three sides of it) well, having his actors move on and off it and into the side aisles rather than retreating backstage. He uses it marvelously to recreate the unloading of passengers, many angry and others teary eyed, into the lifeboats. He uses a balcony on the stage wall as the bridge of the ship. The set is sparse, but Stephenson uses it well, particularly when he has a table glide across the stage when the ship tilts as it fills with water.

The first act is a nice look at all the hopeful passengers with their back stories. They are eager to get to America for a number of reasons and proud to do it on an unsinkable ship. There were some big names on the Titanic, such as financier John Jacob Astor, mining magnate Molly Brown, Isidor Strauss, the owner of Macy’s Department store, and Benjamin Guggenheim (the museum). .We learn interesting little tidbits about passengers in second class and the members of the crew (this was supposed to be the very last voyage for the retiring captain and it turned out to be just that). The first act ends with the crash into the iceberg.

The second act is the story of the sinking and the catastrophe in which the passengers and crew find themselves. It is filled with a slow and ever building drama. Passengers cry and panic. Some wives refused to leave their husbands on board and died with them. Even though you know how the story ends, the play retains its tension throughout the second act and at times is downright haunting. You can’t help but feel sad and sorry for the 1,500 who died that dark, cold April night on the north Atlantic.

The acting in the show is first rate, especially Adam Heller as cruise line chairman J. Bruce Ismay, William Parry as Captain Edward Smith, Jonathan Brodey as first officer William Murdoch, David Studwell as Isidor Strauss and Elizabeth Hake as Kate Murphy.

History lovers will enjoy the new Titanic. Writer Peter Stone, a veteran playwright, did his homework and infused much wonderful, analytic history into the play. He does it in reflective way, never attacking the ship or its company, but stating facts that lead people in the audience to go wide eyed. Example: the ship only had room for 1,000 of its 2,224 people in its lifeboats. The passenger never had a lifeboat drill. Over 90% of the crew was untrained for any emergency. A wireless operator at a ship just 30 minutes away, that could have saved everybody, had turned off his set and went to sleep, leaving the Titanic stranded. The head of the White Star Line, that owned Titanic, ordered the ship to go faster and faster to set a new speed record. The speed made it impossible to halt or change course to avoid the iceberg. Stone also delivers a marvelous historical look at ships and transportation in 1912. He also adroitly describes the caste system on the ship, with three classes, the first full of millionaires. The book is so good that even if you saw the movie you will still pick up endless tidbits about the history of the ship in the play.

The play does have some small problems. The revised Titanic, good as it is, needs to be revised a bit more. The first act, at an hour and a quarter, is too long and has too many songs. A good fifteen minutes could be cut out of it. The play has some wonderful music, with tunes such as In Every Age, We’ll Meet Tomorrow and Still, but there is no great single song (My Heart Will Go On was in the movie, not the play) that you remember and it needs one.  It also needs a tighter storyline in the first act because it is the book that tells the story.

Despite these minor difficulties, the new version of the play is a good one. The Titanic may have perished in 1912, but the play seems to sail on forever.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Westchester Broadway Theater (Broadway producers were Dodger Theatricals, Richard Pechter and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts). Sets: Patrick Rizzotti, Costumes: Derek Lockwood and Ryan Moller, Lighting: Andrew Gmoser,  Projections:  Howard Werner, Sound: Jonathan Hatton and Mark Zuckerman. Runs through February 23.

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