BWW Review: TITANIC Sets Sail at Pittsburgh CLO

BWW Review: TITANIC Sets Sail at Pittsburgh CLO

The one complaint most frequently heard over the years in relation to the musical Titanic is that it is nothing like the beloved, iconic film version. This makes me the perfect person to review the musical, because I have never seen the film. (Who has three and a half hours to spare on a single movie? If I had that time, I'd finally see Godfather Part II.) Even without a Model T sex scene or anyone clinging to life on a wayward door panel, Maury Yeston and Peter Stone's musical delivers. In fact, maybe it delivers a bit too much.

As any theatre buff or Pittsburgher would know, CLO stands for Civic Light Opera, a naming holdover from the days before musical theatre licensing. Since one could not easily acquire the rights to major Broadway musicals, theatre companies of a musical bent typically performed the operettas and proto-musicals of Gilbert and Sullivan, Victor Herbert and the like. Titanic, like most Maury Yeston musicals, hearkens back to the days of grand opera in scope and emotion, if not in music; though his songs have classical and operatic touches, they are closer to a more sophisticated version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's sweeping, genre-devouring pop opera epics. This nearly sung-through show also suffers from the familiar Maury Yeston dilemma of having inordinately many main characters, plotlines and leitmotifs. It almost makes Les Miserables seem streamlined.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not entirely complaining- part of the appeal of an epic musical is its enormity, in ambition if not in actual size. (The CLO production, directed by David H. Bell, takes after the touring production's smaller, doubling-heavy cast.) Rather than following a central personage, like Rose and Jack in the film, the musical makes the boat and its social implication its main character: a world unto itself, where the rich, middle-class and poor can theoretically rub elbows while still being kept far apart by circumstance. The lack of a central viewpoint character makes everyone equal, thus fulfilling the dreams of many of the boat's inhabitants.

You already know the story: "once upon a time, there was a boat that couldn't be sunk. Naturally, it sank on its maiden voyage and most people died, the end." As this overarching narrative plays out with genuinely agonizing dramatic irony, a series of vignettes introduce us to the boat's crew and passengers. In the closest thing to a lead role the show offers, the ongoing drama of the bridge features the stoic and responsible Captain E. J. Smith (Christopher Gurr), a man poised on the brink of happy retirement. Though the Captain is too much a perfect gentleman to ever say "I'm getting too old for this shit," the old cliché applies: the respectable workhorse with one last gig before clocking out will ALWAYS wind up having a bad time of it. That bad time is precipitated by the play's villain, J. Bruce Ismay (Laird Mackintosh). As the Titanic's owner and business manager, Ismay becomes the devil on the whole ship's shoulder, perpetually urging the Captain and chief engineer and architect Thomas Andrews (Bradley Dean) to show off the ship's potential for speed and power, even if it means deviating from their best-laid plans. The three are perfect foils, musically and dramatically. Gurr's eloquence and gravitas recall Patrick Stewart, another famous captain, while Dean's brooding presence and powerful voice make him a perfect audience surrogate, opening and closing the show with his musings on the ship he created and the fate it suffered. Mackintosh, a Broadway vet with a history of playing the Phantom himself, chews scenery with aplomb, bringing a touch of BBC camp to his Doctor Who villain of a businessman.

The rest of the characters come and go, popping in and out as the narrative shifts focus. There's not a weak link in the entire cast, but the sheer number of characters and subplots means that the performances that pop most are frequently the comic-relief roles. Julie Garnye and Joseph Domencic recur throughout the show as the Beans, a sitcom-style middle class couple. (From his first appearance you can tell Edgar is going to be the funny character by his straw hat- have you ever known a serious character to wear a boater hat?) Easy-going Edgar Bean is perpetually bemused by his wife's high-energy pursuit of the high life, and when she gets her wish to mingle with the high and mighty- in a lifeboat- it's somehow less amusing than we thought it would be. The two of them are contrasted against a number of other couples, most notably Isidor and Ida Straus (Jeffrey Howell and Becky Barta), a wealthy older couple looking forward to a quieter life.

Below deck, the serving class get some of the best of Yeston's music. Chris Peluso looks rather like a Les Miserables revolutionary with his work clothes and massive shock of hair, but his performance as a romantic coal stoker is galvanizing- the minute he opens his mouth to speak or sing, the whole show focuses in immediately on him. Similarly, the dry comic timing of Quinn Patrick Shannon as the ship's chief butler brings a touch of Downton Abbey levity to the first act, and a sense of stiff-upper-lip British resilience to the second. Shannon also plays a ship's porter in the first act, though the characters are so similar in demeanor and function that I did not realize until consulting the script that the two were not the same character in a different jacket. In smaller roles, Kevin Massey and Allan Snyder make good impressions, first as the ship's radio and navigation experts, then as the two singers and musicians in a posh dance band. (Overall, owing to the time period, the women have significantly less to do than the men in this show, though the rousing and hopeful "Ladies' Maid," a song in steerage led by the female ensemble, is one of the musical highlights.)

Overall, Titanic is not a perfect show, though it's a near perfect production. The smorgasbord approach to plotting will turn some people off, who prefer to follow a single plot or character through such an expansive evening. Nonetheless, for those of more adventurous tastes (and Yeston's sometimes-challenging music is certainly more adventurous than the scores to many pop-operas), the show provides an unsinkable evening of drama, trauma and hubris.

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From This Author Greg Kerestan

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