Reconfigured as a chamber musical for 20 performers and six musicians, 1997 Best Musical Tony Award winner Titanic makes for a dream boutique production. StageArt has raised the bar again, presenting a superb cast, highly intelligent direction, beautiful music and creative, immersive staging.
Based on meticulous research, book writer Peter Stone shaped the musical’s story of the hopes, dreams and loves of the passengers and crew of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. The sumptuously melodic, almost sung-through score is by composer Maury Yeston, a revered favourite of devoted music theatre lovers. Stone and Yeston capture the sheer joy of the new age before ending act one with the inevitable disaster. Yeston’s gorgeous score ranges from hymn to rag, from waltz to patter song, from soaring ballad to massed choral number. And there is plenty of his characteristic flair for intricate counter-melody along the way.
Original Broadway cast member Don Stephenson devised this streamlined version of Titanic, in which the ensemble cast plays some sixty characters from the crew and all three classes. Currently enjoying its Australian premiere season, this chamber revival has been a hit in Toronto and in London, where it has returned this year.
The multiple roles are a boon for the cast members, but could potentially be diabolically confusing in the hands of a lesser production team. Aided by Lucy Laurita’s seemingly infinite costume design, director James Cutler establishes an extraordinary number of distinct, memorable, engaging and affecting characters.
The simplified staging involves a raked wooden stage, with four string players, representing the ship’s steadfast band, nested in the upstage left corner. Set design is by Simon Coleman, Robbie Carmellotti and Cutler, and also includes sheer, gleaming blue fabric on three sides. Kai Mann-Robertson’s projections give an abstract, textured feel to the backdrop.
A set of wooden chairs is utilised creatively, but the choice to mime almost all other props is an odd and occasionally distracting choice.
Lighting, by Giancarlo Salamanca, pinpoints action most efficiently. The steely blue cold of night in act two is nicely contrasted with the occasional effect of flares overhead.
For a story that has been retold multiple times, an aspect that resonates powerfully in this musical version is the celebration of the joy of immigration. While the first class passengers enjoy the privilege their good fortune has afforded them and the second class aspire ever upwards, the third class passengers know they will continue in service but dream of a better life in America.
The opening sequence is as musically complex as Sondheim’s Into the Woods, with at last half a dozen tunes unfolding as the various passengers and crew arrive. The sophistication increases in the final sequence of act one, as various pairs of characters blossom and thrive on a chilly night with “No Moon.”
Musical director Kent Ross delivers an excellent performance of the rather epic score, with well-balanced harmonies and crisp instrumental accompaniment. Multiple effects from the keyboard partially compensate the absence of other instruments, but the ear quickly adjusts to the mostly stringed orchestrations and with the richness of the vocal parts, the music sounds pleasingly full bodied.
Cutler is at the height of his powers in act two, following the harrowing scene of the boarding of the lifeboats with an extended sequence of powerful quiet and stillness as three bereft men absorb the unavoidable imminence of their demise. Given music theatre’s clichéd dependence on colour and movement, this brave choice pays off mightily.
The only three actors to plays single roles, Don Winsor (obsessive designer Mr Andrews) Paul Batey (the well intentioned Captain) and Jon Sebastian (conceited owner Mr Ismay) form a solid core. The men share a strong scene in act two as they argue in vain as to who must shoulder “The Blame.” Winsor has a powerful role in the finale, vividly describing how the ship he designed will sink as he sings “Mr Andrews’ Vision.”
Each of the twenty talented performers shines in their featured moments, and the combined strength of the cast in ensemble scenes is even greater than the sum of their individual gifts.
Casey Withoos delightfully provides much needed comic relief as gushing celebrity-spotter Alice Beane. Harley Morrison is amusingly droll as her suffering husband Edgar Beane.
Greta Sherriff is all class as unselfconscious heiress Caroline Neville, speaking with a polished, graceful tone and singing with a strong, crystalline soprano. As Caroline’s upwardly mobile fiancé Charles Clarke, Sherriff is well supported by Matthew Hyde, who has a lovely pure tenor voice.
Barry Mitchell and Amanda Stevenson are gently endearing as devoted couple Isidor and Ida Straus, who reaffirm their deep abiding love in moving 11 o’clock duet “Still.”
Christopher Southall brings an abundance of quirky personality to the memorable role of snobbish First Class Steward Mr Etches. As dutiful radioman Harold Bride, Joel Granger sings with a beautiful pure tone. Adam di Martino impresses with his sprightly rendition of “Doing The Latest Rag.” Sam Bennett has a sturdy masculine presence as starry-eyed third class passenger Jim Farrell.
Music theatre lovers are strongly urged to make the most of this opportunity to see and enjoy Titanic the Musical.
Titanic the Musical plays at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne until 24 July 2016.
Photos: Belinda Strodder