If the title Titanic, the Musical conjures up images in your head of life vest clad passengers tap dancing their way into lifeboats or a Nathan Lane-voiced singing iceberg, you’ve seen way too many Disney musicals. Thankfully, the Tony Award-winning Peter Stone/Maury Yeston show takes a decidedly more serious approach in telling the tale of the world’s most infamous nautical disaster by focusing on the (mostly-true) human stories of those on board and, through them, touches on issues of class, greed, sacrifice and hubris that Disney wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot trident. The end result is a highly entertaining and affecting evening of grand musical theatre.
Closer in spirit to the 1958 British film classic A Night to Remember than James Cameron’s 1997 bloated Titanic, this version has no real “star” or “lead” as the real star of the story is the event itself. What you do get in the current Spreckels Theatre Company production is an all-star cast of North Bay musical theatre regulars and a few fresh faces all taking on featured roles as passengers or crew members and creating a superb ensemble.
Director Gene Abravaya has gathered Steven Kent Barker (Hello, Dolly), Sean O’Brien (Next to Normal), Jeremy Berrick (The Little Mermaid), Jacob Bronson (The Light in the Piazza), Tim Setzer (Oliver!), Julianne Bretan (The Little Mermaid), Dwayne Stincelli (Annie, Get Your Gun), Kit Grimm (The Addams Family), Cindy Brillhart-True (Nunsense!), Dan Monez (Camelot), Karen Pinomaki (Little Women – the Musical), Scottie Woodard (Bonnie and Clyde), newcomers to the scene Brian Watson and Emily Thomason and all the strong supporting players the Spreckels company could muster to create a show that scores both dramatically and musically.
Need I rehash the plot? A ship declared “unsinkable”… a captain on his final voyage before retirement… the cream of society on board for an historic journey… emigrants on their way to a new life… newlyweds… families… the company chairman pushing to beat a transatlantic speed record… reports of ice in the area… a collision.
Considering we all know how the story ends, it’s important to note the show isn’t all doom and gloom. Actually, there’s quite a lot of color and humor and heart. The color is provided by the magnificent costumes by Pam Enz. The humor is provided by a delightful characterization by Karen Pinomaki. Ms. Pinomaki’s gossipy, second-class, status-seeking flibbertigibbet Alice is a hoot, whether dealing with her put-upon husband (Dan Monez) or giving first class steward Etches (Tim Setzer) the run-around. The heart is provided by multiple cast members, including Cindy Brillhart-True and Kit Grimm as the devoted Ida and Isidor Straus and Julianne Bretan, Abby Heidbreder and Amy Marie Webber as the third class “Kates”.
The inherently dramatic story of the Titanic’s maiden/final voyage is set to a score (with about forty musical numbers) that is almost operatic in nature. Musical Director Tina Lloyd Meals and her five-member orchestra (Lisa Doyle, Carol Vines, Pam Otsuka, Tom Martin and Nick Ambrosino) deliver the music that, when joined with the mellifluous vocal talents of the cast, fills the Spreckels auditorium with a lushness and power befitting this story. (The musicians are actually tucked away in a backstage alcove, so a big assist must be attributed for this to sound designer/engineer Jessica Johnson.) The songs themselves are the story, so it is imperative for them to be sung well. The voices do not disappoint and often they soar.
Another big assist goes to Spreckels’ Paradyne projection system, without which I cannot imagine this story being told as effectively. The original Broadway production used an incredibly expensive three-story set that contributed to its closing at a loss even after 800 + performances. Spreckels, with neither the budget nor space for anything along those lines, achieves with its projections the sense of time and place and scope necessary. From the actual newspaper headlines that open the show, through the shipboard scenes, to that fateful star-filled night and ultimately, to images of the real people whose tales were told, the audience is enveloped in images that enhance the storytelling.
Regardless of how familiar the audience is with the story specifics, Abravaya and the cast still manage to build and maintain suspense effectively, though at the show’s second performance the Act I conclusion felt a little flat. Energy seemed low, and what was missing from the scene was a sense of urgency and horror at the realization of what was occurring. The utilization of an animated projection for the iceberg also seemed out of place within the context of all the other projections employed. I found that it just took me out of the moment. One wonders if it might have been more effective just utilizing sound to represent the collision and skip the visual.
As the lone theatrical adaption of the Titanic story (a Christopher Durang one-act doesn’t count), Titanic, the Musical stands on its own as a more-than-sea-worthy vehicle and, quite frankly, is superior to most film and television productions. It may not afford the spectacle that a CGI-laced film can, but it more than makes up for that with the human element that only live theatre can provide. The spacial and technical requirements necessary to produce a show of this nature are limiting, so any opportunities to see a full production will be few and far between. Abravaya and the actors, musicians, designers and technicians of the Spreckels Theatre Company have come together to give the Bay Area that opportunity and in doing so have produced an outstanding piece of ensemble theatre.
Titanic, The Musical
Presented by The Spreckels Theatre Company
through October 30
Fri/Sat @ 8pm, Sun@ 2pm, Thurs, Oct 27 @ 7:30pm
Spreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Photos by Eric Chazankin