Review: A Soaring, Powerful TITANIC THE MUSICAL at the Manatee Players

A technical marvel!

By: May. 15, 2022

Review: A Soaring, Powerful TITANIC THE MUSICAL at the Manatee Players

"God Himself couldn't sink this ship!" --Mr. J. Bruce Ismay in TITANIC: THE MUSICAL

"WORLD'S LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICE-BERG" --Fake headline for April 15, 1912, in the Onion's Our Dumb Century

The Titanic disaster of 110 years ago has become almost Biblical in proportion. It's like the Old Testament God swooped down on modern-day man's hubris to teach us a valuable lesson. It was a wake-up call to the Twentieth Century, a century of endless possibilities and technologies. It's that rare actual disaster that also becomes a parable of sorts: A ship, boasted as indestructible, is destroyed on its maiden voyage in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.

Class even enters in the mix, but in the end, not even the richest, most pampered people of the world could survive nature's (or God's) wrath. The Titanic haunts our collective nightmares--a dream of progress turned into the horror of unimaginable loss and suffering--all because prideful men were not prepared for the worst. Some people think that the Twentieth Century started on January 1, 1900, but those in the know understand that the real century-a century of global wars, the possibilities of nuclear annihilation, and the fate of the world built on the shoulders of technology-started on April 15, 1912, with the Titanic.

In 1997, 85 years after the sinking of the notorious vessel, two massive, very different works tackled the same Titanic subject matter. In April of that year, TITANIC THE MUSICAL opened and would win the Tony for Best Musical and run for over 800 performances (was there an episode of the Rosie O'Donnell Show where Rosie didn't cheerlead its power?). Later in the year, in December, James Cameron's cinematic magnum opus, Titanic, would turn Leonardo DiCaprio into the decade's top teen magazine heartthrob and become the biggest box office behemoth in history (until Cameron's Avatar would capture that crown a decade later).

The two works are so very different that really the only two things that they have in common are a sense of awe and the details of history's most famous ship disaster. Cameron's film is certainly more rip-roaring action-packed, while the musical--with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and the book by Peter Stone--is more meditative, somber. Titanic the movie is old-school entertainment with a lip-licking villain played by Billy Zane that seemed more suitable for Trelawny of the Wells than a motion picture a few years away from a new Millennium. TITANIC THE MUSICAL has a sort of villain (Mr. J. Bruce Ismay), but he's far more grounded, and the musical points its fingers at all of mankind (and perhaps mankind's biggest sin, hubris). While the James Cameron film may be more entertaining (and its song, "My Heart Will Go On," ubiquitous), the musical, at least to me, seems far more memorable and emotional. No matter how much you know about the Titanic disaster, the musical grounds the story, humanizes it, and you leave the theatre an emotional wreck.

The phenomenal cast and crew of the Manatee Players did more than just perform this work and perform it well; they brought the whole thing to life, history and art ultimately merging. (The show, performed in Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, ends its run today, May 15.) Director and choreographer (and Producing Artistic Director of the Manatee Players) Rick Kerby knows no peers when it comes to stage movement and pacing. This is one crazy, jaw-dropping, tech-heavy production. Set pieces, scenery, projections, all rapidly moving about, nonstop, a hyperactive chess set, Rube Goldberg on Red Bull. And then a scene will play out, still almost to the point of static, before the sets and the wild set movement go berserk again. It was thrilling to see the possibilities of theatre; Mr. Kirby has built his own awesome Titanic here...but a Titanic that not only doesn't sink, and that not only stays afloat, but that soars.

Part of the show's marvel must be credited to the wonderful cast, and it is quite a large assemblage, so big that, when they all walked onstage to board the Titanic, it was like a parade that never ended.

Leading the way, in a performance that had me from the very first lyrics sung, is Cory Woomert as Mr. Thomas Andrews, the ship's tragic architect. Woomert gives so much depth to the part, and his singing voice is just lovely, as easy as a breeze. You never want him to stop singing. Also, he never pushes for the big note, never over-reaches; it's always there, haunting and gorgeous to the ear. Woomert is in such control that I could listen to him sing in every musical; a truly stupendous performance.

Bradley Barbaro is imposing as the ship's captain, Mr. E.J. Smith, and also possesses amazing vocals. Kenn C. Rapczynski plays the villain, Ismay, for all he's worth without resorting to Zane-like overacting. Ismay is that irritating bureaucrat who thinks he knows more than the people who actually know more. The show points to him as the chief culprit, pushing the ship to run faster than it should on its first voyage; his fate is also an interesting twist of events (but you have to see the bio in the lobby to really get an idea of what was in store for him). Rapczynski looks like a combination of Willem Dafoe and Tony Dalton, and his singing voice is also terrific. There is number in Act 2--"The Blame"--where Ismay, Andrews and the Captain heatedly point fingers at the others in an ultimate blame game, and it's incredibly effective (reminding me, in a way, of "Your Fault" from Into the Woods).

Scott Keys has an emotional scene in Act 2 as Mr. Etches that had me on the verge of tears (and I am not an easy crier). The talented Madison Bradley plays the annoying star-seeker, Alice Beane, to the hilt; you get the feeling that she's excited for the disaster since that means she gets to hang out with the famous first-class rich folk as they board the lifeboats. Shannon Wright is marvelous as Kate Mullens. Ric Stroup and Ellen Kleinschmidt make for an endearing couple as showcased in the heartbreaking song, "Still."

Brian Kleinschmidt is outstanding as the stoker Frederick Barrett; you knew you were in good hands when he sings "How Did They Build Titanic." You feel his wonder at the sight of the massive ship. There are several doomed couples in the production, and you feel especially sorry for Mark Netherly's Charles Clarke and his fiancée, Michelle Anaya's Caroline, knowing that history would doom their nuptials.

Dave Springer is delightful as the radioman Harold Bride, and his songs with Barrett, "The Proposal" and "The Night Was Alive," are highlights in Act 1.

There are so many parts, and so many cast members play various roles, that it was sometimes hard to figure out who's who in the show. Also, some of the lyrics were hard to decipher due to articulation issues in some of the group numbers. But the harmonies were out of this world thrilling.

Others in the cast who brought this TITANIC to life include Neal Addison, Carol Clancia, Joe Eckstein, Mark Eichorn, Eliza Engle, Jacqueline Galvano, Shari GreenbergIsabella Henry, Christos Nichouloudis, Mike Nolan, Peter O'Malley, Michelle Schmitt, and Mark Wodland. Special mention to Auggie Toynton and Asher Woomert, both of whom tackle all of their onstage moments with so much verve. Young Leelynn Back-Netherly plays the youngest in the cast, and I noted that he always stayed in character the whole time he was onstage, which is something to be lauded from such a young performer.

And yes, there is a real dog on the stage, Izzy, who plays Mrs. Cordoza's pet and steals every scene she is in.

TITANIC THE MUSICAL is far from perfect, and my issues have more to do with the show itself than this fantastic production of it. In Act 1, there seems to be a lot of filler, held together by our waiting for the doomsday clock to strike. Sometimes it feels stiff, like a James Ivory film set to music. And there are some moments, mostly in the middle of Act 1, where the show stops dead in its tracks; some of the numbers feel like the Ascot races scene from My Fair Lady performed over and over again.

We forgive the British accents, or lack thereof sometimes, because it really makes the Titanic feel like the melting pot that it was.

But Act 1 starts off mesmerizing and glorious, loses its footing for a spell, then gets back on track the closer we get to the iceberg. Act 2 is stellar, where we feel the overwhelming loss. I love that none of the passengers realize how serious the situation is at first, and when they finally come to grips with reality, it's tragically too late.

A great detail, by the way, can be seen when the survivors are paraded out at the end of the show, donning Carpathia blankets, and some of the logos are upside down and I adored this; its specific touches like these that separate this from more mundane productions.

Enough cannot be written about the technical aspects of this show, led by production manager Kristin Ribble: Ken Mooney's labyrinthian set design; Jay Poppe's visually alluring projections; Caren Brady's top-notched (and time appropriate) costumes; and Sam Doty's wild lighting schemes. Musical Director Rick Bogner gets the most out of his performers because those vocals, especially the group harmonies, were off the charts fabulous. Bogner's orchestra also must be commended, including Renee Inman on violin, Kathryn Smith and Daphne Waggener n viola, Charles Wright on cello, Tanner Stephens on Bass, and John Januszewski on percussion. The music is quite ghostly and haunting, which is appropriate because we're dealing with people who don't realize that they will soon be ghosts themselves.

And all of it comes together with director Rick Kerby, whose staging is so inventive and ingenious. This is one hell of a show production-wise. And the Manatee Players rival Eight O'Clock Theatre and MAD Theatre as the best community theatre in the entire Bay Area. (After this show, for my money, the Manatee Players are the ones to beat right now.)

The Titanic disaster has always hit close to home with me. My great-great-great uncle, Archibald Butt, perished on that ship. (He made the newspaper headlines, but he didn't even rank a mention in TITANIC THE MUSICAL; then again, neither did the unsinkable Molly Brown.) I watched the Manatee Players production in awe--awe for the way the tale was told and for the immense talent and heart for the tellers of that tale. And after the show, I peered at the lobby display, looking at the history of the people we had just seen onstage. It's like I couldn't get enough. And I guess that's the best compliment I can give a production--that the show never ends, not after the curtain call, not after the standing ovation. It stays with you long after you drive home and long after you awaken the next morning. Thanks to this show, 110 years later, the Titanic still haunts our dreams.

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