Titanic the Musical

30624268_10155414410376696_7439123350854565888_nPittsburgh CLO’s second offering of the 2018 season is the Tony Award-winning Titanic the Musical, created by Peter Stone (story and book) and Maury Yeston (music and lyrics). 

At its most interesting the score recalls moments from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with traces of Les Miserables in the mix as well. The rest is serviceable and lively, if not particularly memorable.

With a minimal Overture, well controlled by musical director James Cunningham, the curtain goes up to reveal a unit set designed by David Woodhead. Composed of a stationary metal upper walkway with stairs on each end, the design utilizes one movable staircase, a few openings in the lower wall, and minimal props to create the varying locations onboard. I am of two minds about this set. On one hand, it’s very effective. The enormous scale of the metal riveted walls that completely surround and engulf the playing space creates a sense of enormity. It is oppressive, cold, and dwarfs the humans inside it. It is also completely stationary. Except for a clever bit of stage magic near the end of the show the set.never.moves. It feels stuck. Since flat black walls encase the playing space, the set doesn’t allow for much color or texture from the lighting design. It keeps the space feeling cold and lends itself to the impression of the characters being completely isolated and out of time. The bleak lighting palette is palliated by the beautifully colorful and well-tailored costumes.

DSC_5197-RETOUCHThe story begins with the opening number “In Every Age,” and over the next several songs we are introduced to crew, passengers, and workers in the Titanic, and thus to the wonderful company of singer/actors who bring all of this to life. Without a doubt, the performers make this production, providing lovely voices all around and a real effort to bring authenticity to roles that give them only short moments to create well-rounded characters. 

First, we are presented with the primary leaders of the voyage, the captain, the ship’s owner, and the ship’s builder. 

Bradley Dean as Thomas Andrews, the earnest designer of the Titanic, is incredibly sympathetic and takes the biggest emotional journey of the show, plunging from excited pride in “The Largest Moving Object” to manic despair in his final “Mr. Andrew’s Vision.”

Chairman and owner of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, infamous for making his escape from the sinking ship on one of the few available lifeboats, is epitomized by actor Laird Mackintosh. 

Christopher Gurr brings just the right amount of gravitas to the role of Captain Edward J. Smith, along with an authoritative baritone. 

DSC_4727-RETOUCHJulie Garnyé as the star-struck, aspirational second class passenger Alice Beane, along with her pragmatic and patient husband Edgar Beane, played by Joseph Dominic, win over audiences with their charming, comedic performances. Ms. Garnyé handles her showcase patter song “Mrs. Bean (The First-Class Roster)” with aplomb and finesse, and the  song cleverly sets up the strict class divisions observed on board,

As the ship is outfitted with food and luxury items in “Loading Inventory,” we meet lower ranking ship’s staff, including Senior Steward Henry Etches, played by Quinn Patrick Shannon. Mr. Shannon seems to really anchor the whole piece, as his character holds together the daily operations of the ship, bringing canny authority and humor to his role, with a quick-silver tenor voice.

The third class passengers are comprised of poor immigrants from several European countries, primary among them the Irish Kates. The Kates are a bit interchangeable. There’s Kate McGowan, Kate Murphey, and Kate Mullins, played by Charlotte Maltby, Katie Anderson, and Olivia Vadnais respectively. All of them have shaky Irish accents, but they also have pretty, crystalline voices and good comic instincts. As leader of the pack, Charlotte Maltby is strong and fearless. The poignant song “Lady’s Maid” celebrates the dreams attendant with immigrating to America.

Below decks, coal stoker Frederick Barrett is played with a perfect combination of fierceness, frustration, and vulnerability by Chris Peluso, whose no-holds-barred rendition of “Barrett’s Song” is impressive to say the least. 

Later Barrett seeks out wireless operator Harold Bride to help him send a marriage proposal to his lady love back home. Together Barrett and Bride sing one of the best pieces in the show, the hopeful “The Proposal/The Night Was Alive.” 

Christopher Gurr, Laird  Mackintosh, and Bradley Dean

Christopher Gurr, Laird Mackintosh, and Bradley Dean

Actor Kevin Massey, who portrays Harold Bride, chief engineer Joseph Bell, and band leader Wallace Hartley, gives the stand out performance of the evening. Mr. Massey’s distinctively sweet tenor voice, paired with his earnest Harold Bride and his bravado Wallace Hartley are simply lovely.

Act I ends at the moment the iceberg makes contact with the ship. Act II begins with Mr. Etches handing out life jackets as the inevitable destruction of the ship becomes clear to everyone. 

Act II picks up pace effectively, reflecting the urgency of the situation. “The Blame,” sung by Ismay, Smith, and Andrews, is harrowing. Particularly moving is Captain Smith’s lamentation, “There is only one captain. And I was in charge. This is my ship, no one else’s!” Smith goes down with the ship.

The momentum towards the finale hits a bit of a snag when Isidor and Ida Strauss, played by the stalwart Jeffrey Howell and Becky Barta sing a sweet, if overly sentimental, duet “Still.” But it quickly plunges forward again, and we witness the breakdown of Andrews as he recounts the problems with the ship’s design, performed with great pathos and a very strong vocal by Mr. Dean. 

The final sinking of the ship and its aftermath are effective, again, because of the Sondheim-like quality of the score and staging at this point. It is a satisfying ending and a solid offering by the CLO. 

Titanic The Musical runs at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts through July 1, 2018. For ticket information, visit http://www.pittsburghclo.org

Photos by Matt Polk

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