BWW Review: TITANIC (THE MUSICAL) at Barn Players

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BWW Review: TITANIC (THE MUSICAL) at Barn Players
Cast of TITANIC (THE MUSICAL) from Barn Players

Barn Players production of TITANIC (The Musical) opened this past weekend at the Arts Asylum to full and appreciative audiences. The Broadway iteration of TITANIC (The Musical) opened to positive reviews in 1997. TITANIC is a huge (pardon the play on words) Community Theater undertaking in all ways you might imagine it could be.

TITANIC (The Musical) opened in the same year as the much lauded James Cameron Hollywood film of the same name. Both productions chronicle the most laboriously documented sea disaster of all time. Other than a few historical personages and events, the two projects have almost nothing in common.

TITANIC (The Musical) was written by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone. It won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The original production ran for over 800 performances, but was so gigantic and complex, that it never made back its original investment. The BARN PLAYERS production directed by Kipp Simmons is similarly complex but in different ways.

BWW Review: TITANIC (THE MUSICAL) at Barn Players
Matt Runnells-Rebol As Thomas Andrews

An orchestra of nineteen sits concealed above the stage in a former choir loft. A huge, leveled set with multiple entry and exit points built by Bill Wright with projection designs by John Edmonds requires imagination on the part of the audience, but makes the rest of the production possible. A more practical TITANIC ship would have sunk the production. Costumes by Brooke Merriam are mostly monochromatic as they might be in a documentary film made at the time.

On April 11, 1912 when she set sail from Southampton England for her maiden crossing of the Atlantic to New York City, The RMS TITANIC was the largest, most luxurious, fastest conveyance yet built by man. The ship was 883 feet bow to stern with a registered displacement of about 46,000 metric tons. The rated passenger capacity was about 3500 people on board. This first crossing housed 2224 souls on board.

Construction of this 1912 marvel was supervised by thirty-nine year old Marine Architect Thomas Andrews (Matt Runnells-Rebol) for the Belfast Northern Ireland shipbuilder Harland and Wolff at the direction of the White Star Line. Andrews was on board for the inaugural crossing. Also on board were White Star Chairman J. Bruce Ismay )Matt Fowler), White Star's most experienced ship's master Captain Edward Smith (Gary Wesche), and many American business luminaries of the day. The true owner of the ship was J.P. Morgan of New York through his Chase Bank.

TITANIC is a testament to what man could achieve in the first decade of the twentieth century, to his arrogance, and to the pressures of big business. She was equipped with waterproof compartments, electrical emergency doors, and lifeboat davits for fifty-four long boats in case of a crash, and Marconi wireless communication for 24/7 contact with the outside world.

BWW Review: TITANIC (THE MUSICAL) at Barn Players
Gary Wesche as Cpt. Edward J. Smith

Of course, near midnight on April 14, 1912 TITANIC struck an iceberg despite numerous warnings and sank in under three hours. Fifteen hundred passengers and crew died. Standard practice at the time was to carry only about half the possible lifeboat complement. The idea was that nearby ships could come quickly to the rescue. None were close enough or awake at that instant in history to save the passenger and crew load. The twenty lifeboats provided were not all full as panic took over in the great ship's final moments.

TITANIC (The Musical) has a most impressive score. It is almost a pure opera (especially in the first act.) The program list a massive cast of forty seven singers and thirty-one musical numbers. Although there are soloists, the overall impression is almost of a huge choral piece.

Except for some of the more prominent historical characters, there are no leads in the conventional musical theater sense that we can follow through the story Architect Andrews (Runnells-Rebol) and Captain Smith (Wesche) both die in the disaster. We do get to know the Strauses (David Lothen and Joy Richardson), the founders of the Macy Department Store, who famously ended their long marriage together on TITANIC. Stoker Barrett (Scott Kruse) and Radioman (Hewleek McKoy) deserve special mention for their contributions,

The villain of the piece is J. Bruce Ismay (Matt Fowler). Ismay is an historical businessman attempting to make a statement by pushing the ship faster and faster. We remember him because he survived and because he is reputed to have acted like a jerk. Was he responsible? I suspect not.

The decision to understock lifeboats on the davits didn't help and was soon corrected on later ships. The idea that waterproof bulkheads didn't need to be complete was also corrected. Should there have been a standard practice of twenty-four hour radiomen on all ships for emergencies like this one? Another lesson learned.

The bridge crew attempted to steer around the iceberg and managed to rip open five compartments laterally down the side of the ship. Had they slowed, reversed thrust, and smashed in the bow of the ship only, might the great ship have survived? A collision in 1956 between the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm sank the Andrea Doria, but the bow only impact saved the Stockholm.

TITANIC is endlessly fascinating. Woulda? Shoulda? Coulda? That is why we keep revisiting the wreck literally and figuratively. This production from Barn Players is well mounted and offers so much to unpack that it is difficult to offer all the credit that is due. Be especially concentrated on lyrics to the songs. Acoustics require you to pay special attention.

TITANIC (The Musical) continues its endless voyage at the Arts Asylum through February 23. Tickets are available at the Barn Players online or by telephone at 913-432-9300.

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From This Author Alan Portner