That Sinking Feeling

Like any good tragedy, the Broadway musical Titanic begins by introducing us to characters who yearn, Icarus-like, to "fabricate great works" that will confer a larger sense of meaning on their day-to-day lives. Citing such manmade marvels as the Parthenon, the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian pyramids, Thomas Andrews, the architect of the doomed Royal Mail Steamer Titanic, sings passionately about Michelangelo's "[Sistine] chapel ceiling screaming one man's ecstasy" as he pores over his blueprints for what became--during a fortnight in 1912, anyway--the world's largest moving object.

Just as you wonder whether you'll be able to become emotionally involved in a musical about a maritime disaster, hordes of passengers and crewmen arrive, their upturned countenances beaming with hope and splendid singing voices charged with enthusiasm. To swelling orchestral accompaniment, the travelers on stage at the Buell Theatre evoke our collective sense of wide-eyed wonder as they sing the show's signature song, "Godspeed Titanic." One fellow tugs at our heartstrings as he removes his bowler hat and bows his head in silent prayer before scrambling--to what he thinks will be the journey of a lifetime, but will it be to his untimely death?--up an enormous ramp emblazoned with the words "White Star Line." Then, poised as we are on the brink of caring about the fate of the assembled masses, the near-operatic goings-on quickly devolve into a banal tale, its dramatic propeller nearly motionless and its musical engine only occasionally fired by bursts of glorious song.

That's a shame, because the performers in this touring production are certainly capable--much like one suspects of their New York counterparts--of handling dialogue that's more inventive than "My father never had a corner on the market; he only had a market on the corner." When the ship's first officer, William Murdoch (David Pittu), muses about holding the passengers' "souls in the palm of [his] hand" or when the radio man, Harold Bride (Dale Sandish), innocently asks, "How can you communicate with one person when you've got the whole world talking to you?" each character's compartmentalized concerns begin to pique our interest. And when a feisty Irish emigrant named Kate McGowen (Melissa Bell) dreams of "streets paved with gold" in an American city whose name (Albuquerque) she can't pronounce but which she hopes will look something "like Donegal," the time seems ripe for the disparate plot lines to be cleverly intertwined in a series of fitfully orchestrated scenes that will build to a rousing climax or two.

But that never happens in Peter Stone and Maury Yeston's two-and-a-half-hour show. Yes, the ship eventually collides with the iceberg, which we all knew (and perhaps wished) would happen long before the ship's owner, J. Bruce Ismay (Adam Heller), systematically prods the ship's captain, E.J. Smith (William Parry), to rev up the boat's turbines to ramming speed. Predictably, the passengers react to news of the ship's sinking with a blithe nonchalance that quickly gives way to an overwhelming feeling of claw-and-scratch panic. However, much of what occurs between the well-executed opening medley and the final, heart-wrenching episodes fails to convey any mounting sense of urgency. And none of the intervening scenes reveals more than a layer or two of each character's particular personality. As a result, the ballyhooed production becomes more of an exercise in the wonders of special effects and two-minute vignettes than it does an absorbing, momentum-gathering epic about mankind proclaiming dominion over the forces of nature.

That's not to say the production completely lacks allure. On the contrary, as the stoker Barrett, Marcus Chait injects the haphazard drama with a measure of desire and longing as he delivers his Act One ballad, "Barrett's Song." A few scenes later, the talented Chait tenderly sings "The Proposal" and teams up with Sandish (who croons "The Night Was Alive") to obliterate the otherwise ubiquitous class barriers that separate the Titanic's wealthy passengers from the nouveau-riche second-class and lowly steerage types. (In reality, a first-class ticket for the trans-Atlantic crossing cost roughly $50,000 in today's money, while each third-class fare was approximately $345.) And as Isidor and Ida Straus, S. Marc Jordan and Taina Elg movingly reaffirm their characters' wedding-day promise to stay together until only death parts them. Bell's portrait of the winsome Kate, Parry's portrayal of the resolute skipper and Kevin Gray's rendering of the anguished ship's designer all add some needed texture and perspective to this humdrum story, as do a couple of painted backdrops.

One of those depicts a myriad of staircases from a flat-on-your-back point of view, looming behind and above three frantic Irish women in search of escape from a watery grave. A few other backdrops--each with the same sort of twisted venetian-blind-like pattern gently cascading from top to bottom--nicely suggest the shifting skies and ocean-surface shimmers that likely greeted the passengers on their more tranquil days and nights. Most, however, seem hastily composed (some are badly wrinkled), and even though a couple of simplistic vistas of the ship's outdoor decks are meant to give theatergoers the feeling of being on board, spectators seated in the far right and left sections of the theater are likely to be frustrated by much of the production's two-dimensional flatness. (A remote saving grace for diehard Titanic fans: Folks seated in the loge boxes on the theater's sides might get a kick out of imagining they're in the ship's paltry supply of lifeboats; for the rest, though, that's just another sign that most of us might not make it out of here alive.) Even so, the ship's sinking is adequately re-created by a rising platform that forces passengers to cling to cables and lifelines (some lose their grip and plunge to their demise as they slide down the sheer deck) as a black curtain, representing the sea, rises from the stage floor.

As the ponderous show finally draws to a close, scores of blanket-draped survivors stand in a row with their backs to us and take in the enormity of what happened to their ill-fated companions (more than 1,500 of whom perished in the icy depths). Then the enthusiastic actors turn around and sing the show's finale--and even though the hundreds of dead seem to have been given short shrift, our earlier concern for the characters' well-being surprisingly wells up once more. We haven't been transformed by this superficial story, though, because we haven't been afforded enough of a chance to immerse ourselves in the more universal and moving aspects of the odyssey. Unfortunately, the humanity we're looking for still seems to be somewhere at the bottom of the sea, tragically unexamined.

Titanic, through March 21 at the Buell Theatre at 14th and Curtis, 303-893-4100.


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