Few 20th Century events continue to exert the fascination of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. The mind still boggles at the epic tragedy of a supposedly unsinkable ocean liner on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City striking an iceberg in dead of night. What terror must have been inspired by the sudden realization that death was but an inexorable hour or two away?

2,224 passengers and crew in all—and only enough lifeboats onboard to carry half of them. 1,514 dead. Only 710 survivors, despite there having been space for 500 more.

And the “what ifs.” What if there had been sufficient lifeboats? What if the ship hadn’t been traveling at full speed so as to reach its destination in record time? What if a few critical modifications had been integrated into its design? What if a nearby ship had gotten Titanic’s SOS? What if? What if? What if?

 These questions, and more, are at the heart of Titanic The Musical, Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s epic Broadway musical, winner of five 1997 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score.

Titanic The Musical has visited Los Angeles twice since its Broadway debut, once when the National Tour played the Ahmanson in 1999, and again in 2001 when Civic Light Opera Of South Bay Cities presented its regional premiere. In both productions, scenic design threatened to overpower Titanic The Musical’s human story, and in the opinion of some, did exactly that.

Now, eleven years later, as the world commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of Titanic, Musical Theatre Guild has stripped away Titanic The Musical’s greatest liability, its set, to present it as it ought perhaps to be presented from now on, in concert form. Brilliantly directed and staged by Calvin Remsberg and performed by a sensational cast of twenty-nine, Monday night’s concert staged reading, to be repeated next Sunday, surely stands as not only one of the most powerful stagings Titanic The Musical has had in the years since Broadway, but one of Musical Theatre Guild’s crowning achievements.

Unlike John Cameron’s Oscar-winning film of the same name, Titanic The Musical presents not one central story but almost as many plot threads as there are characters, a series of vignettes that introduce us to the crew and to a cross section of passengers in this extremely class-conscious ocean liner, from the Third Class voyagers who dreamed of starting life anew in a country whose streets were reputedly paved with gold, to the considerably better-to-do Second Class passengers, to a First Class passenger list whose names (John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Isidor Strauss) were as famous in their day as the Bill Gates and Donald Trumps of our own epoch.

 Stone’s book introduces us to the ship’s designer and builder Thomas Andrews (Dan Callaway), its owner J. Bruce Ismay (Stan Chandler), its captain E. J. Smith (Doug Carfrae), its officers (David Zack, Ian Littleworth, and Erik McEwen), and various crew members (David Holmes as quartermaster Hitchens, Jeffrey Christopher Todd as radioman Harold Bride, Zachary Ford as stoker Frederick Barrett, Payson Lewis as lookout Frederick Fleet, and Steven Hack as the ship’s senior class steward), many of whom get their own moment in the musical spotlight.

Somewhat less attention is paid to First Class passengers, with the exception of the Strausses (Chuck Bergman and Carol Kline) who get an eleventh hour duet, but they are a colorful bunch nonetheless—Holmes as Astor and Jeanette Dawson as his bubble-headed teenage bride Madeleine, John LaLonde as Guggenheim and Pamela Hamill as his mistress Mme. Aubert, Joy Weiser and Carter Thomas as Marion Thayer and her young son Jack, T.J. Dawson and Kristen Lamoureux as George and Eleanor Widener, and Dina Bennett as the mysterious Charlotte Cardoza.

Among the ship’s Second Class passengers, we meet Charles Clarke and Caroline Neville (Peter Welkin and Teri Bibb), for whom America offers the chance to marry far from the eyes of her disapproving English parents, and Americans Edgar Beane (Roy Leake, Jr.) and his wife Caroline (Shauna Markey), her dreams of sneaking up into first class coming true in one of Titanic The Musical’s most delightful sequences.

 Featured among those in Steerage are a trio of Irish lasses each named Kate (Robin De Lano, Tessa Grady, and Lamoureux), the former of whom has a very good reason to set her eyes on marrying handsome Jim Farrell (Jeffrey Scott Parsons) if she can only meet him before docking in New York.

Completing the dramatis personae are bandmaster Wallace Hartley (William Martinez), a pair of bandmen (Welkin and Lewis), and professional dance duo The DaMicos (Parsons and Grady).

(Though a number of cast members play more than one role, one of the many standout features of Remsberg’s inspired staging is that not once are we confused by seeing one performer wear—quite literally—two hats.)

Remsberg lets our imagination take the place of the original production’s and CLOSBC’s humungous sets, beginning when crew and passengers gaze skyward across the proscenium at an 11-story-high Titanic we see in our mind’s eye. A downstage scrim lowered to within a yard or so of the floor suggests the ship’s cramped boiler room, forcing stoker Barrett to crawl under it to enter and exit his sweltering work area. The same scrim lowered all the way down gives us the radio room where Bride sits alone communicating in Morse code to the world outside. When raised to reveal the entire stage, it is up to us to imagine the splendor surrounding the rich and the lack of such down in Third Class.

Composer-lyricist Yeston, whose other musicals include Nine, Grand Hotel, and the regional favorite Phantom, has written some of his most gorgeously hummable songs for Titanic The Musical, and virtually every cast member gets his or her own solo. Callaway’s “In Every Age” and “Mr. Andrews’ Vision,” Ford’s “Barrett’s Song,” Zack’s “To Be A Captain,” Lewis’s “No Moon,” and Martinez’s “Autumn” are so beautifully sung by all of the above that each deserves a sentence apiece. Duets are performed equally exquisitely by Ford and Todd (“The Proposal”/“The Night Was Alive”), Markey and Leake (“I Have Danced”), and by Kline and Bergman (“Still”). Then there are the trios, the delightful “Lady’s Maid” by DeLano, Grady, and Lamoureux, and the dramatic “The Blame” by Chandler, Callaway, and Carfrae in distress mode. Finally, there are the full-company numbers “The Launching” (actually a medley of seven songs), “What A Remarkable Age This Is,” “Dressed In Your Pajamas In The Grand Salon,” “To The Lifeboats,” and a reprise of “In Every Age,” that fill the theater with vocal harmonies the beauty and power of which may well be unmatched in Musical Theatre Guild history.

 The cast of MTG’s Titanic The Musical is so across-the-board phenomenal that it seems unfair to single certain members out, however I would be remiss not to mention a towering Callaway, a distinguished Carfrae, and a villainous Chandler and their heated exchange of accusations of blame; DeLano and Parsons, captivating in their unorthodox love story; Ford, Todd, and Lewis, their voices soaring in perfectly realized acting-singing vignettes; Grady and Parsons “doing the latest rag,” choreographed by the selfsame duo; Kline and Bergman breaking hearts with their operatic declaration of undying love; Markey’s delight as she dances among the First Class rich and famous, all the while scurrying around the floor to escape ejection, and her joy at informing her loving spouse Leake what she’s accomplished; and McEwen’s delicious character turn as an elderly gent whose every anecdote involves “hordes of godless savages.” And in an effort to leave no cast member un-lauded, Bennett, Bibb, Dawson & Dawson, Hack, Hamill, Holmes, LaLonde, Lamoureux, Littleworth, Martinez, Thomas, Weiser, Welkin, and Zack simply could not be better.

 In addition to Remsberg and his cast, the other undisputed star of MTG’s Titanic The Music is musical director Julie Lamoureux, Scenie-winning Musical Director Of The Year. Not only does Lamoureux elicit the best possible vocal performances from her cast, she has taken Jonathan Tunick’s Tony-winning original orchestrations and transposed them so artfully for a mere six instruments that not a single musical motif is lost, particularly as performed by one of the most exquisite-sounding small orchestras I can recall hearing—Lamoureux on keyboard, Rory Mazella on clarinet, flute, and piccolo, Dustin McKinney on trumpet, Ken Wild on bass, Manoela Wunder on violin, and perhaps most importantly for all in recreating the grandeur of the original full orchestra, Mike Deutsch on drums and percussion.

Costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg of AJS Costumes (assisted by Jessica Olson) has garbed the cast almost entirely in plain-ish black period-looking outfits, another terrific choice that allows our imaginations to picture Broadway finery, with a change of hat cueing us to a change of character.

(Memo to the men. In the brief “God Lift Me Up (Hymn)” segment, no early 20th gentleman would wear a hat in church or ship’s chapel.)

Kudos to production coordinators Heather Hoppus-Werner and Kim Huber on this monumental undertaking, and to production stage manager Art Brickman, and assistant stage managers Courtney Geraldez and Tara Sitser.

 Those fortunate enough to have experienced Titanic The Musical at Glendale’s Alex Theatre on Monday will not soon forget the voyage. And for those whose interest has now been piqued, the best news of the 2012-13 MTG season is that all five productions will have a repeat performance at Thousand Oaks’ Scherr Forum Theatre. For those who missed the boat on Monday, Titanic The Musical will be sailing one more time on Sunday at 3:00. To paraphrase one of Titanic’s best songs, “You must get on that ship!”

Performance reviewed at Glendale’s Alex Theatre.


–Steven Stanley
September 24, 2012
Photos: Daniel G. Lam

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