Review: TITANIC THE MUSICAL at Hale Centre Theatre

The production runs through May 11th at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert, AZ.

By: Apr. 07, 2024
Review: TITANIC THE MUSICAL at Hale Centre Theatre
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BroadwayWorld Guest Contributor David Appleford returns with his perspective on Hale Centre Theatre’s production of TITANIC THE MUSICAL.

The challenge a director faces when producing a large-scale musical designed to be seen on a proscenium stage and adapting it for a theatre-in-the-round presentation can often seem insurmountable. Not every show is going to work. Yet somehow, Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert has proven time and time again how effectively it can be done.

Performing now at Hale’s theatre-in-the-round until May 11 is the gargantuan Broadway musical TITANIC, originally called TITANIC A NEW MUSICAL,, now referred to as simply TITANIC THE MUSICAL.

Long before the show opened in ‘97, rumors regarding elaborate sets going wrong, hydraulics breaking down, a budget rocketing sky-high, and last-minute concerns that the show wouldn’t even open, had gossip mongers salivating. But the show did go on. It even swept the Tonys, winning all of its five nominations, including Best Musical. Reviews were tepid, mixed to good, and even though the show closed without turning a profit, the overall reaction from audiences was generally positive. It was the revival two years later in 1999 that earned the praise.

Streamlined from the original jumbo set design – those hydraulic pumps were now gone – the premiere in Los Angeles of the first national tour earned praise in much the same way that the revival of The Color Purple did once it eliminated its original scenic design and put the focus squarely on the performers. With Hale Centre Theatre and a forum that possesses no set or backdrops in the traditional sense, focus on the performers is even more concentrated, and it works incredibly well. Director Cambrian James has presented a unique retelling of the horrific event that occurred on April 15, 1912, when the RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage hit an iceberg and sank in the middle of the Atlantic. A vessel that needed 54 lifeboats but had only 20 resulted in the drowning deaths of more than 1,500 passengers.

Writer Peter Stone has used facts and figures to keep the events of what occurred during those early hours of April 15 as accurate as possible. Because of that, a problem the book can’t possibly overcome is that there are no surprises. Due to films such as A Night To Remember plus the phenomenal global success of James Cameron’s film, the events as they happened are by now too well known and documented. We already know what’s going to take place and how.

But that doesn’t mean attention wanders. Aware of what lies ahead, the stupidity of the company owner, J. Bruce Ismay (Cameron Rollins) demanding more speed and trying to override a captain’s authority can’t help but induce an emotional response. And a steward telling 3rd-class passengers, “You wait down here until you are told,” as the water rises while the 1st-class are already climbing aboard the lifeboats will cause a similar sense of anger.

But among the high-drama, there remains the occasional moment of good humor. When third-class passengers talk of their hopes and dreams in America where they’re certain they can rise above their station, the pronunciation of American cities, names they have only seen in print but have never heard, are spoken literally. Albuquerque becomes ‘Albie-cue-cue,’ while Maryland becomes ‘Mary-Land.’

That lack of worldly knowledge also extends to the 1st-class. At a dinner table when the recently married Madeleine Astor, a nineteen-year-old who has married a wealthy man twenty-nine years her senior, is asked how did she find Paris, she replies without any sense of irony, “I didn’t have to. John knew exactly where it was.” The line, as writer Peter Stone intended, is meant to show how guileless the young bride is. Being wealthy is not an automatic indication of knowledge and intelligence. The scene is usually portrayed with the youthful character possessing a look of concern as the older dinner table guests around her laugh at her innocence, but, as directed, the character laughs along with everyone else as if she had intended it to be a clever witticism. The moment, as presented here, misses the point.

And as often occurs in a Hale Centre Theatre production, some of the action is performed on a balcony above the entrance tunnel on the northwest side of the auditorium. While most seated in the round can enjoy the effectiveness of having the action from the ship’s bridge conducted on this elevated level, several audience members seated in that section have to either crank their necks to see or simply listen to what is being said, unable to view anything from their seated position. A climactic moment when the production’s one special effect takes place - the deck begins to lean forward as the ship eventually sinks - will be lost on those seated in a section of the theatre’s northwest side; they simply won’t be able to see it.

Like a 70’s disaster movie where over time you get to know certain individuals and become concerned with their fates, among the real-life characters of the ship’s designer (Tyler Thompson), its company owner, and the ship’s captain (Bryan Stewart), writer Stone has incorporated among the passengers characters representing the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-classes, many of whom were also based on their real-life counterparts. But they’re more snapshots of an assemblage rather than central figures; there’s no one person you’re with or get to know for any length of time. In other words, there’s no Kate and Leo, though amusingly, when it comes to the Irish 3rd-class down below in steerage, many of the women’s first names are Kate.

The cast of TITANIC THE MUSICAL is a true ensemble. No one performer stands out more than the other. The real star of the show is Maury Yeston’s score. Like Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Yeston’s TITANIC THE MUSICAL is operatic in style and epic in scope. Full-throated, inspiring robust voices fill the house.

In the way that radio is often referred to as a theatre of the mind, it’s in the mind of the audience where the full horrors of an enormous passenger ship, a floating city considered unsinkable, happens. There is no tilting of a stage, and no objects, such as a tea trolley eerily rolling from one side of the stage to the other, to be seen. Instead, the reality of what is happening is conjured in an audience’s mind by the behavior, the panicked dialog, and the superb singing voices of the large ensemble. Plus, a widescreen projection on the walls of the theatre’s east and west sides, displays time, dates, and settings, so that at any point in the show you know exactly where you are. The moment when the ship’s lookout declares, “Dear Mother of God! Iceberg ahead!” you’ll have goosebumps.

Hale Centre Theatre ~ ~ 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert, AZ ~ 480-497-1181

Graphic credit to Hale Centre Theatre


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