BWW Review: Slow Burn's TITANIC a Haunting, Soulful Dirge
Those expecting to climb aboard the RMS Titanic with Leo and Kate in tow may find themselves lost in the haunting, historical drama now showing at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Slow Burn Theatre Company's first show of 2017 is 1997's Titanic, released just before the film, which follows closely the lives of those who truly lived (and died) upon the cursed ship. Director Patrick Fitzwater, coming fresh out of Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, has grasped the drama of the cold, dark tale to present an almost operatic tragedy and a roaring score only he could wrestle onto the stage.
Although you won't find the Heart of the Ocean, Titanic features love stories that hurt all the more for their historical basis. Aboard the doomed vessel, third class passengers imagine life in America, second class passengers hope to enjoy the lifestyle of the first class passengers, who are fittingly indulging in excess above board. Audiences are also given perspective into the Titanic's workers, from an Irish coal stoker below deck to the men who saw the iceberg approaching, all the way down to the wireless radio operator in his compartment.
Such a varied cast of characters presents a complex, ensemble musical with need of smooth pacing and energy. While a song or two jar the momentum, the show glides along from each vignette in a fashion smooth as the Titanic's first few days were.
Titanic, further, is written in a fashion many directors would struggle to uphold. Fitzwater manages to have his first act be a rotating gallery of endearing stories, painting portraits of the souls on board, that culminates in the horrific iceberg encounter. His second act becomes a harrowing journey, less about each soul as it is the soul of humanity. The sacrifices, the promises made, and the community that bands together as the performers give a surreal play-by-play of the experience each person went through.
In Fitzwater's production, Titanic has few, if any, leading characters. Each performer gets a chance to shine before they're swept back into the story's hold, and while some have more time to shine, each scene is an entire tragedy in its own right- when the characters perish, the grief is leagues beyond what Cameron could hope to capture.
One of the closest performers to a lead is Leah Sessa as Alice, a character between the precipice of third class upbringing and the potential of the rich passengers. Her endless joy is a cruel pendulum that swings back into the second act's pain, but Sessa and James A. Skiba, as her husband, are Titanic's pivotal point.
The cast of nearly two dozen is spilling over with individuals who would overtake a lesser cast. Matthew Korinko portrays the cruise liner's architect Andrews, a man haunted by his imperfections. Andrew Rodriguez-Triana, as Titanic's owner Ismay, is representation of the human greed that caused the historical tragedy. There is joy to be found in Cameron Jordan's Etches, Justen Fox-Hall's flustered husband, and Jordan Wolfe's brilliant Bride.
Landon Summers, as the lowly coal-stoker Barrett, is a silken voice of love and dreams from the true bottom of Titanic's ladder, an Irish boy that illustrates the working poor of his time. The slightly better off Bellboy, played by the heartbreakingly endearing David Matthew Klein, bristles with endless joy, even in the face of death itself. Sunny Gay as the Irish dreamer Kate McGowan gives a taste of a modern woman in her brilliant wit and dazzling smile.
On the other side of the line, act two's drama gives a very different picture of the performers. David Hyman, playing the doomed Captain Smith, remains composed and dutiful with his second, Steven Fuentes' Murdoch, as they are wracked with what they've done. Victor Souffrant gives the performance on the night in No Moon/Autumn; sitting alone in the crow's nest, Souffrant's fear and cold throws waves of paranoia and horror over the evening as the iceberg slowly approaches him. Not to be outdone, Troy J. Stanley and Ann Marie Olson (as the Strausses, the founders of Macy's) break hearts with their romantic eulogy to each other in Still.
There isn't a show written in a way similar to Titanic- most vignette shows give a central narrator or character, but Titanic, instead, revolves around the ship. A ship audiences are aware will be sinking, with most of the characters onboard. This gruesome reality sinks in as the show continues, giving a very somber, harrowing experience to the second half of the first act as the first warnings of icebergs come in, and through the entirety of act two. Without the music, the show would virtually be a funeral.
What a blessing the music is, under the watchful eye of returning music director Emmanuel Schvartzman. From the foreshadowing In Every Age until the reprisal finale, the music is a constant hammer nailing each tale into the production's hull. Barrett's Song and The Proposal are gorgeous love songs that showcase Summer's beautiful baritone, The Night was Alive gives Wolfe's standout performance, and Lady's Maid is Sunny Gay at her best (not to mention the rest of the talented third class passengers). Once Souffrant's aforementioned No Moon haunts the mind, the music morphs into dirges to the past, whether it be To Be a Captain (Reprise) or the disastrous The Floundering.
As Schvartzman works wonders in the orchestra, the underappreciated Rick Pena sewed his magic backstage. The cast of twenty portrays, by rough estimates, forty one characters. Each is well outfitted in crisp, gorgeous costumes, from Olson's elegant dresses to Gay's cute Irish skirt, and Klein's poignant Bellboy uniform.
Sean McClelland, resident Slow Burn scenic designer, has created a set of towering masts, realistic looking steel railings and walls, transporting audiences to the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. His attention to detail, in the small portholes to the criss crossing ropes, shows the clean, fresh liner. Along with lighting designer Thomas Shorrock, the visuals of Titanic are impeccable. Shorrock's design lies in nuance, not just the heavily light group scenes, but the dark blues washing over the wives as they kick the lifeboat out into the dark night- one of the most pained scenes in Fitzwater's production.
The bottom line is that Fitzwater has taken the worst maritime disaster in human history and made it hurt all the more. To watch To the Lifeboats is to watch humanity at its most selfless, most full of love and hope. Titanic, halfway through its run, is high art in how it creates beauty in the darkest of places, finds love in the cabins of a sinking ship, gives hope in a darkening night, delivers empathy for people we could never hope to know. Titanic has made its maiden voyage, in record fashion, and it has become your duty to board before it sets sail next.
Titanic performs at the Amaturo Center from Jan. 19-Feb. 5th. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.
Photo Credits: Jim Hall