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TITANIC at Griffin Theatre Company, Review – Doing More With Less

By Justin LeClaire

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Upon telling my non-theatre acquaintances that I’d be reviewing Maury Yeston and the late Peter Stone’s musical version of Titanic the most typical reaction I got was a dumbfounded blank stare as if they didn’t know if I was joking or not. I admit the concept of a singing dancing show about the most famous maritime disaster ever sounds a bit preposterous. So I’ll do my best here to hold back on the bad puns, which admittedly is a little hard to do. Luckily this production sails way more than it drowns though (told you they were bad).

 

The company of Griffin Theatre Company’s production of TITANIC

 

In all seriousness though, this vastly reduced chamber version of Titanic is a remarkable achievement. The musical itself is still textually flawed. However the minimalist way it’s told here brings out some great moments of emotional potency within the story which was concealed in this show’s previous excessively large-scale form. This production should serve as a clear example to any theatregoer, director, or producer of how powerful and compelling even a faulty show can be just by doing less.

 

I think everybody pretty much knows the story of Titanic so there’s no point in discussing the plot here, which is good since there really isn’t much of one. Basically most of what we’re watching transpire on stage is a musicalized historical reenactment of the Titanic disaster, though I will admit it is a highly entertaining one. And for those who are wondering, this musical has next-to-nothing to do with James Cameron’s sweeping epic Titanic blockbuster film, which coincidentally was released in cinemas the same year this musical opened on Broadway. Not only does everyone sing here (and occasionally dance), but there’s no Jack and Rose to give us a central focus.

 

The original Broadway production was indeed epic. That production was overblown. It cost over $10 million dollars to produce and included an actual ship that sank on stage (its previews were famously plagued by numerous technical problems where the tech crews had problems getting the Titanic to actually sink). Though the musical received mixed reviews it still won a Tony Award for best musical, which isn’t surprising considering the abysmal lack of new musicals released that season. And while it managed to sail (and sink) for 804 performances it still closed at a staggering financial loss.

 

Griffin Theatre Company’s generally excellent production, thankfully, is not exactly that same Titanic musical from Broadway. Years after Titanic closed, one of the original cast members, Don Stephenson, reimagined the whole musical as a vastly scaled-down chamber piece. This “intimate” version of Titanic opened last year to rave reviews in London’s West End and was rumored to be heading back to Broadway for a revival later this year…. that is before those plans went pretty much Titanic themselves. Luckily it’s how Griffin Theatre Company was able to obtain the rights to do this musical to begin with.

 

Mr. Stephenson’s gut instincts were spot on for scaling back Titanic to a basic level. The Broadway version had good intentions, but it was almost too epic for its own good. The spectacle of having a giant ship on stage, and having it sink, was obscuring the show’s heart and turning this disaster into a mindless tourist attraction. Instead of a cast of 35 like in the original, it has now been scaled down to just 20. Instead of a full 26 piece orchestra, we now only have 6 instrumentalists. The ship doesn’t literally sink on stage anymore, or really at all here – yes, the Titanic goes down obviously, but the effect is done using light panels and sounds. In fact, we never actually see the giant ship on stage at all. It’s referenced to in the first few moments, and then when we’re inside the ship a couple sets of staircase railings, which can be wheeled around the stage, give us all the imagery we need to visualize the various settings aboard.

 

 

Josh Kohane (center) and the company of Griffin Theatre Company’s production of TITANIC

 

Overall the results of this chamber version of Titanic are more good than bad. By taking away all the extravagances there’s suddenly a real emotional pull that seems to emerge from the depths within a lot of the songs. Titanic is by far one of Maury Yeston’s best scores. The lyrics are visual, the chorales are anthemic and grand, the softer moments are beautiful, and the variety of songs is fabulous.

 

It should also be noted that Stephenson reworked the score a bit for this new intimate chamber version of Titanic by bringing back some cut songs from the original and removing others. Ian Weinberger added some lovely new orchestrations to Yeston’s music to it as well, both of which are excellent additions.

 

One of the show’s best highlights was the sweeping duet of “The Proposal/ The Night Was Alive”. These songs, both sung together, managed to perfectly fuse the show’s extensive thematic span within the context of the individual passengers. This gorgeous number was sung by an outstanding Justin Adair who perfectly captures the idealistic stoker Fred Barrett romanticizing about a girl waiting at home while the ship’s radio operator Harold Bride, amicably performed by the talented Royen Kent, sings of his own interest - modern technology.

 

“We’ll Meet Tomorrow”, which not surprisingly also featured Kent and Adair, was another emotional high point in the show. As was Eric Lindahl’s spectacular handling of “Mr. Andrews’ Vision”, by far one of the best sung solos in this entire production. And some of the ensemble songs like “No Moon” and “Godspeed Titanic” were extraordinary, if not hauntingly visual. These moments of genuine sentimentality are exceptional; sometimes even thrilling.

 

But they’re also just all too brief glimpses as sadly the rest of this musical constantly gets anchored down in unimaginative historical facts about the Titanic’s dimensions, its capabilities, the class distinctions, the inadequate disaster preparations, why the Titanic sank, what happens as it was sinking, and of those who shares the blame. Many of us already know the details about Titanic. We know the ‘Titanic’ is going to hit an iceberg, that there aren’t enough lifeboats, and that there will be a tremendous loss of life. What I wanted to see more of is how all of this personally affects everyone. While there are a few very touching songs between various couples as well as some great choral numbers, the rest of the show, particularly in regards to the ship’s crew, comes off seeming like something straight out of an encyclopedia chapter.

 

(left to right) Eric Lindahl, Scott Allen Luke, Royen Kent and Peter Vamvakas

 

Yeston has always seemed to have a rough time merging his music within the framework of his collaborator’s book scenes. It’s as if he writes separately from his partners and everything gets squeezed in together after the fact. Unfortunately a side effect of doing a minimalist production of any show is that with no “grand spectacles” to hide behind anymore, many of the show’s textual problems become all too evident out in the open.

 

Not only do certain songs such as “Still” and “Doing the Latest Rag” seem all too obviously shoehorned into the script, but Peter Stone’s writing for many of the characters feels as frozen as the iceberg that sank the ship (I know, I know another bad pun). For saying these characters are based on real people, they don't feel real. A majority of them seem to only exist to either provide symbolism or contribute to a plot point. This was most noticeable with the stiff writing for Captain Smith who is void of any sense of identity or personality outside of being a ship’s captain looking forward to retirement.

 

Similarly J. Bruce Ismay, the head of the White Star Line which built the Titanic, is written as a clichéd smug, affluent, and arrogant villain who is continuously urging the Captain to advance Titanic’s speed to a dangerous untested level. Ismay’s depiction here is also a little unfair as well. Most Titanic historians have recently concluded that the real Ismay in fact never pressed for boosting the ship’s speed. The myth that he did is just a conspiracy theory which came about after the sinking since the press was looking for a scapegoat to blame the sinking on and the public willingly followed along.

 

The other problem with scaling down Titanic is that cutting the cast size down from 35 to 20 makes it hard at times to differentiate the various characters apart from each other. In addition to their main roles everyone in this cast also doubles as a generic ensemble member. Some actors such as John Keating and Royen Kent (both of whom were perfect throughout) have the hefty duty of playing multiple characters outside of the ensemble. It gets really confusing to know which characters the actors are playing. This was especially puzzling when certain actors are featured in back-to-back scenes and the distinctions between their different characters weren’t defined very clearly.

 

The multiple casting decisions also makes things come off like a joke in places. In one of the opening scenes the fine actress Emily Grayson is introduced as several female characters who are about to board the ship. Grayson is forced to switch personalities and body positions to indicate the different roles as the passengers have their names called out and a photograph taken before boarding the Titanic. And though the actress did a fantastic job with this moment it doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the show. In fact, since we know many of these characters are heading to their deaths it might’ve been more effective if we had actually gotten to meet some of these characters individually as real people first.

 

(left to right) Kevin Stangler, Josh Kohane and Justin Adair

 

Despite many of these structural problems this Titanic is actually really good. Overall the most impressive thing about Griffin Theatre Company’s production of this minimalized Titanic is how, well… “Titanic” it all feels. The absolutely marvelous direction by Scott Weinstein must be applauded for giving this musical a large epic feel simply by doing less. It allows the actors to bring the world of this show alive for us instead of having it be shown to us through excessive production elements. The staging is highly detailed from one moment to the next. We might question who we’re watching at times, but we never question where we’re at.

 

Joe Schermoly’s simplistic basic set is very effective. It consists of two wooden staircase railings that can be wheeled around the stage, in addition to some chairs, platforms, and a bunch of circular light panels in the back to convey the actual ship. With such minimalized resources it’s amazing to see what this cast is able to do with them. These “black box” type of bare-bones shows put a much stronger emphasis on the actors.

 

Without a real set they are the ones who we have to rely much more on to paint the settings for us in their imaginations. This is great since much of the acting in the majority of this cast is outstanding. However, with minimalistic pieces like these there’s no place for anyone to hide on stage and, as a result, certain actors who might’ve gone unnoticed in bigger more extravagant shows tend to awkwardly stick out when they’re not giving it their best.

 

Since this is such a large cast it’s going to be impossible for me to pin point everyone here. But there were very many great performances going on that deserve a mention. The three different Kates we meet, played by Kelley Abell, Courtney Jones, and Christine Mayland Perkins, were all exceptional. Each one of these actresses gave their characters great energy, an enthusiastic sense of hopefulness and fear, they all really connected with each other, and each actress made some really interesting choices that were great to watch.

 

Equally as engaging was John Keating as the 1st class strewart Henry Etches (the actor also doubles as a pitman). Keating gave Etches a great flamboyance that seemed honest to the character rather than stereotyped. His sad goodbye towards the end was moving as the actor tried to hold back tears. We get a real sense of the approach of death from Mr. Keating that really raised the stakes and brought it to a level of reality that we might have missed otherwise.

 

The always magnificent Laura McClain is not only vocally exquisite, but she gave her character Caroline Neville some rich colors that added so much to her personality. Her song “I Give You My Hand” which she sang with Matt Edmonds as Charles Clarke was touching, but it’s way too short. The show just briefly touches on their eloping relationship and then just drops it for the remainder of the show. It would have been nice if they were given an Act 2 number to expand upon their relationship or at least so we can see what happens to them.

 

The same could be said for the duet “I Have Danced” between Alice Beane (played by Neala Barron) and Edgar Beane (a skillful performance by Jake Mahler). The song was good and these two established a great connection, but again the story doesn’t take it anywhere. We don’t see them have to depart from each other so we don’t know where they end up. There are just too many questions for us to really care about them the way we should. As an aside, having seen Neala Baron on stage before I need to say that her performances are so endearing that she’s quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses in Chicago. Ms. Baron's energy on stage is just infectious. She makes some really interesting choices, she adds unexpected humor to her lines, and she gives all of her characters some great depth.

 

(left to right) Matt Edmonds and Laura McClain

 

While all of these performances were fantastic and many of the big ensemble numbers downright thrilling, there were a few performances on the night I attended that could use a bit more work. I couldn’t understand a word that Nick Graffagna’s bellboy said in this show. Patrick Byrnes seemed like he was doing an imitation of Sean Connery in his book scenes as William Murdoch so it was hard for me to take him seriously during those moments. Mr. Byrnes' singing vocals, on the other hand, were phenomenal and greatly showed off his abilities. And though Peter Vamvakas and Scott Allen Luke had the difficult task of playing our two most flatly written characters, Captain Smith and Bruce Ismay, their wooden performances didn’t help bring out any roundness or depth to them either.

 

And I have to be honest, Sean Thomas’s inept portrayal of Isador Strauss was just not good. His entire performance came off so casual that I really had to wonder how much homework Mr. Thomas did outside of just memorizing his lines and staging. Though his scene partner, Emily Grayson is doing her best as his devoted wife, Ida Strauss, there’s entirely no genuine chemistry with Mr. Thomas’s Isador. It’s a shame because their song, “Still” could have been the musical’s most poignant heartbreaking moment had there been an emotional connection between the two performers. The lack of chemistry and tender sadness in that number also destroyed all of the show’s building energy up to that point in Act 2 - though the song also feels jammed in out of nowhere just so the writers could give us some bathos before the actual sinking.

 

To be fair I do have to point out that opening night was overbooked so the night I reviewed was technically still a preview performance. So my harsh tone here might be unfair given that the cast was still in the process of getting used to an audience. I’m willing to give most of them the benefit of the doubt and say that perhaps some of them were just holding back for the actual opening night.

 

The vocals in this show, especially the large choral ensemble numbers, are the steering force throughout most of this excellent production. Being in such an enclosed theatre space you have the feeling that you’re being blasted by 50 singers instead of just 20. These ensemble chorales are stirring and anthemic. Elizabeth Doran’s music direction here is exceptional.

 

The last song in Titanic “In Every Age/ Godspeed, Titanic” gives this show a perfect tribute to the many passengers who lost their lives that tragic day. This is where the real heart and soul of this piece lays. It’s why the personal stories of those who perished will resonate so much and why I wanted to get more of them rather than getting caught up in Titanic’s specifics. Still it’s a great finale to the show that brought a couple tears to my eyes. Overall, this is a beautiful production and one definitely worth checking out.

 

Bottom Line: Titanic is recommended. For the most part this intimate staging of Titanic works. It really does! Titanic is best when it delves into the disaster’s emotional core. That core is essentially when we get to really feel what the ‘R.M.S. Titanic’ meant to those idealistic hopeful people who boarded it, and how they suddenly came to realize that those dreams were going to drown along with the ship (and possibly with them as well). Though I wish we had more of the life and death struggle in the latter portion, I still loved how this simple production is able to bring out many of the honest truths that were buried in the text in its oversized previous form. April 2012 marked the centennial anniversary of the ships fatal disaster. The reason this tragic story still fascinates us today is that the Titanic perfectly embodied every anxious social issue of the early 20th century such as women’s rights, class struggle, immigration, and the failure of man’s faith in technology. It means so much and its story still resonates today.

 

Titanic – Griffin Theatre Company

Running Time: 2 hours and ten minutes, including a ten minute intermission 

Runs through:December 7, 2014

Location: Theatre Wit - 1229 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL, 60657

The theatre is located near the intersections of N Racine Ave and W Belmont Ave in the Lakeview district of Chicago. It is an easy 6 minute walk west from the CTA Belmont Station and can also be accessed by the # 77 Belmont Ave bus. Parking is available nearby, but space is limited. Use googlempas for directions. 

Curtain TimesThursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 3 pm 

Tickets and Reservations: $39. Tickets are available at www.theaterwit.org, in person at the Theater Wit Box Office, or by calling (773) 975-815 

Discounted and Group Tickets: Students and seniors $34, Group discount: $34 for groups of ten or more (all ticket prices updated since previous release).

 

Music and Lyrics:Maury Yeston, Book: Peter Stone,New Orchestrations: Ian Weinberger,Director: Scott Weinstein,Music Direction: Elizabeth Doran, Choregraphy: Sawyer Smith, Lighting Design: Brandon Wardell, Costume Design: Rachel Sypiewski, Set Design: Joe Schermoly, Sound Design: Christopher Kriz, Projection Design: Paul Deziel, Properties Design: Jamie Karas, Production Manager: Majel Cuza, Stage Manager: Katie Messmore


Cast: Kelley Abell (Kate Murphey), Justin Adair (Fred Barret), Neala Barron (Alice Beane), Joshua Bartlett (Charles Lightoller), Patrick Byrnes (Murdoch), Matt Edmonds (Charles Clarke), Nick Graffagna as (Bellboy), Emily Grayson (Ida Strauss), Courtney Jones (Kate McGowan), John Keating (Henry Etches), Royen Kent (Harold Bride), Josh Kohane (Frederick Fleet), Eric Lindahl (Thomas Andrews), Scott Allen Luke (J. Bruce Ismay), Jake Mahler (Edgar Beane), Laura McClain (Caroline Neville), Christine Perkins (Kate Mullins), Kevin Stangler (Jim Farrell), Sean Thomas (Isador Strauss) and Peter Vamvakas (Captain Smith).

Understudies: Ella Pennington, David Elliot, Caitlin Collins

Photo Credits: Michael Brosilow

 

Published on Oct 29, 2014

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