There’s something fundamentally spiritual about the legend of RMS Titanic. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole there are few to be found aboard an ocean liner going down fast in icy waters but coming up short on lifeboats.
While Maury Yeston’s 1997 musical Titanic may never be seen as a seasonal alternative to Handel or Dickens, it’s not too soon to shower hosannas on Eric Schaeffer’s re-invention of the work at Signature Theatre. This is an inspired and inspiring night of musical theater.
The audacity of representing the White Star Line’s “floating city” on any mere stage made Yeston’s project a longshot from the start. Some clever stagecraft and scenery wowed Broadway audiences and won Peter Stone’s play five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, back in the 1997 season.
Ironically, the spectacle may have diverted attention from Yeston’s rich choral score. Locally, the 1999 national touring show was almost lost at sea again in the cavernous Kennedy Center. Subsequent concert stagings and chamber versions have shifted focus to the oratorio aspects of the composition.
Schaeffer saw an opportunity in Signature Theatre’s immersive, center-stage environment to bring the whole of the drama back to imaginative life. With his full orchestra arrayed along one wall and the stage itself strung high with gangways and decking, the audience watches as if from its jury box as the case of the infamous sinking is given a new trial.
We witness the soaring spirits of the arriving travelers on the dock at Southampton, see them jockeying for passage, feel the giddy awe of the launching and then experience the full variety of romances and trials of partners at sea, until … Look out!
The guilt for all the loss of human life is spread around, from the ship’s architect to its proud owner and the various captains and officers on duty when the great ship was undone by that iceberg. In only two hours time, a maiden voyage intended to stand forever as a testament to man’s ingenuity is turned into an object lesson in humankind’s arrogance.
At Signature, a far richer sort of crime takes place right before our eyes and ears as huge chunks of the evening are stolen again and again by a superlative cast.
Longtime favorite Bobby Smith is front and center as Thomas Andrew, welcoming us aboard with a full-throated prologue (“In Every Age”). All evidence points to Smith being in his absolute prime now as a performer, a sort of Jack Lemmonish goodtime chameleon who can cavort with the rich, connive with the guilty, and move us to tears with the faith of a simple hymn (“God Lift Me Up”).
Chameleon-like behavior is also seen in the multiple characterizations by youthful dynamo Nick Lehan. As William Hartley, Lehan dances around the stage playing a violin in a syncopated bit of period ragtime, then drops all pretense to sweetly croon the sentimental “Autumn,” and ultimately winning us over with his unassuming, woodchuck grin as telegraph operator Harold Bride.
Signature veteran Sam Ludwig performs with Lehan in the wireless love duet “The Proposal/ The Night Was Alive,” one of the show’s truly heart-rending moments. Ludwig leaves an indelible stamp on it and his solo as Frederick Barrett (“Barrett’s Song”), but also scores on his own purely dramatic terms as business tycoon Benjamin Guggenheim.
Some of the other big voices at Signature come from the ladies. Iyona Blake returns to Arlington to shake the rafters a bit from both first-and second-class compartments as Mrs. Thayer and Caroline Neville, respectively.
As Alice Beane, Tracy Lynn Olivera raises one of the play’s minor players to heroic status in the song “I Have Danced.” And Katie McManus has us pulling for the whole notion of shipboard romance as lusty Irish immigrant Kate McGowan (“Lady’s Maid”).
Also turning in striking performances are newcomer Hasani Allen as Kate’s intended and others; Christopher Block as hapless Captain E.J. Smith; Lawrence Redmond as the fiery, supercharged ship owner, J. Bruce Ismay; and the great Russell Sunday showing both powerful vocal control and nuanced dramatics as chagrined hubby Edward Beane.
Among other happy pairings here are Matt Conner and Jamie Eacker as the Astors, and Florence Lacey and John Leslie Wolfe as the Strauses. And Stephen Gregory Smith (Stoker) delivers passionate performances as crewman Frederick Fleet and American businessman George Widener.
As dance captain, Jamie Eacker also helps Choreographer Matthew Gardiner keep the cast on its toes, though it would be almost impossible not to react to the emotions of the live music conducted by James Moore (from the rich orchestrations of Josh Clayton).
The Scenic Design by Paul Tate Depoo III offers surprises aplenty, including an “underwater” effect of souls and baggage filtering to the ocean floor. The Lighting Design by Amanda Zieve and the glorious period Costume Designs by Frank Labovitz are finishing touches on a first-rate production.
Once again Eric Schaeffer reminds us that theater is a state of mind waiting to be re-awakened. Book passage on Titanic before the rest of the world wakes up and grabs the remaining tickets.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.