BWW Review: TITANIC at Serenbe Playhouse
Dark threatening clouds hang low over the Inn Lake at Serenbe as I clump up the dirt pathway towards the unsinkable R.M.S. Titanic, the ship of dreams, represented here tonight by a massive industrial steel scaffolding structure that rises out of the lake, climbing high into the menacing sky. The sky, providing the natural backdrop for visionary artistic director Brian Clowdus's doomed ocean liner, seems tonally apropos considering that I, along with several hundred other patron-passengers, have driven out specifically for the purpose of revisiting the horrifying deaths of 1503 people in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean on an April evening of 1912 when the festive notes from the ship's orchestra must have peppered the excited night air in much the same way that this ship's gorgeous, first-rate orchestra, positioned some 100 yards away in a shipping crate on a hill above the floating stage, does. As we reach the ship, crew members in gorgeous period costuming by Alan Yeong beckon us aboard while impressive billows of smoke pour out of the kettle drum-smoke stacks perched high atop the scaffolding and ship blasts signify that our immersive journey is about to begin. At that moment, I am simply along for the ride, not knowing as I listen to the women behind me munching on popcorn and clamoring about which Clowdus show has been their favorite, that this production of the lackluster 1997 Titanic, a musical that scooped up a slew of undeserved Tony Awards for Maury Yeston and Peter Stone, is going to be one of the most memorable and dazzling theatrical spectacles I have ever witnessed.
The musical is a true ensemble piece. There are no young Jacks or young Roses to provide a relatable narrative arc. The narrative arc is wholly reliant upon the events surrounding the sinking of the ocean liner. And each character works only to further that macabre sinking-ship narrative. That's always going to be the least satisfying thing about any production of this musical. Luckily, here, each member of the enormous cast of 40 actors is up to the task of providing the ostentation, the excitement, and the horror that the historical event demands. And, with a new set of demands, requirements of Clowdus's over-the-top staging, the actors are also physically up to the task of painting a hauntingly real portrait of human carnage, the byproduct of the marvelous and terrible pride of men.
But the aforementioned "dazzling" and "memorable" are not provided by the other storytellers as much as they are by the incomparable imagination of Brian Clowdus. Discussions of his inventive site-specific production details, including a real helicopter flown in each evening for Miss Saigon and a mounting of Carousel in the middle of a real carnival, all including congratulatory adjectives like "dazzling" and "memorable," are very nearly clichéd now, but it's hard not to continue to gush over seeing things in the theatre that one simply has never seen before. Or even imagined.
The familiar Clowdus "dazzling" and "memorable" this time are informed by the sheer spectacle he and scenic designer Adam Koch have created in the lake at the Serenbe Inn. Actors play a significant portion of the action on a floating dock in front of the ship, and the subtle bobbing of the dock creates the beautifully immersive illusion that we really are passengers on that ship. An enormous crystal chandelier rising out of the lake, seemingly from nowhere, and then submerging again as the ship sinks, provides some of the illusion that the ship is sinking. More of that illusion is created through the complete submersion of steel platforms that hold cast members. One of the most impressive bits of spectacle is born out of the actual launching of lifeboats from beside the steel ship. As we watch in delicious horror, cast members row the spotlighted lifeboats away from the ship, becoming nothing more than a haunting visual image on the periphery of the disaster, as some passengers look back at the unbelievable past while others look only to the future ahead, somewhere far away from the ship of dreams. And, with stringent safety measures in place, the left-behind passengers and crew leap to their watery deaths, some even from near the top of the several-stories-high scaffolding, and remain in the water in front of the ship in a collective dead-man's float that sears itself into the memory.
Serenbe's Titanic is a gargantuan success. It is unlikely that even Yeston and Stone could have imagined their Titanic in so grand a way. And, in the end, just as we knew he would, Clowdus will sail away from his gorgeous production having offered up more fuel to feed the cliché-laden conversations about what he has done before and about how he can possibly top any of it.
Titanic runs through August 19 at the Inn Lake at Serenbe.
For tickets and info, visit www.serenbeplayhouse.com.