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Plane crashes, earthquakes, hurricanes - disasters
fill the newspapers, television and movie screens, and theaters as well. Occasionally
lasting art comes from this subject matter - Camus' novel The Plague comes to mind. But more often than not,
disaster material is simply storytelling or reportage that plays into people's fears and
morbid fascination. In part, it is a "there but for the grace of God go I"
experience; in part, perhaps, it fulfills a need to know what it would be like to
experience the disaster without actually going through it, to see other peoples' responses
under the most dire of circumstances and to try to imagine how they themselves would
The sinking of the great ship Titanic in 1912 offers a classic disaster scenario. The historic events and circumstances of the Titanic provide meaty additional themes: class stratification and, perhaps most pivotal, the hubris of both technology and commerce.
Given such a richness of material, James Cameron chose, in his commercially, if not artistically, successful film, to focus on the spectacle of disaster and render the human story at the soap opera level with a fictional romance superimposed on the real events. The Broadway musical version of Titanic seems to aim higher; it has a tone that suggests it takes itself seriously as musical theatre. Unfortunately it misses the boat in dramatically fatal ways.
First and foremost, writer Peter Stone (1776, Will Rogers Follies) has opted for a purely ensemble piece with a large group of principal characters. The inevitable result is that not one of them comes alive on stage; each has just a few moments in the limelight, so each serves to make a didactic point, rather than emerge as a realized person with whom the audience could identify.
There are moments when talented actors provide flashes of personality on the stage, but their material is so thin that the glow is as momentary and elusive as the flare of a Roman candle. Melissa Bell charms, for example, as a feisty steerage class Irish emigrant, looking for a better life in the new world for herself and the baby she carries. Christa Justus brings comic energy to Alice Beane, but is weighted down by the heavy-handed and one-note satire of a social climber.
Maury Yeston's music is undistinguished, a pale pastiche of a dozen other scores from the last decade. The voices are (with one notable exception) good, and the sounds of the big choruses (overamplified throughout) suggest the inspiration that might have been but remains sorely missing. Marcus Chait awkwardly plays a major character, Barrett, the stoker, singing so off-key and with such an unpleasant (and amplified) wobble, chalk screeching on slate would have made better listening. Chait shares a scene with Bride, the radioman, sung and acted with real Broadway style by Dale Sandfish. The contrast between the two is startling.
It is in the nature of a roadshow that sets cannot be as elaborate as in a settled-in production. What has been provided here is adequate, unspectacular - surely a disappointment for audiences who are drawn to the subject matter of the show for a thrill. But the barebones sets function as needed and the lack of spectacle wouldn't matter if there was a show in front of them instead of a pageant. Stewart Laing's costumes are elegant. Richard Jones' direction repeatedly has the cast marching single-file back and forth across the stage. There is only one tepid dance number, attributed to Mindy Cooper.
Stone uses the first act as a setup, providing the exposition leading up to the disaster in the second. At intermission, there is still a sense of hope that the second act - with the high drama of the sinking ship - will come alive, but hope fades quickly. What might have been a moving moment as the Strausses drink a last champagne toast together instead dissipates into maudlin cliche.
This Titanic is dead in the water.
San Francisco, July 26, 2000 - Arthur Lazere