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BWW Review: Gloriously Sung TITANIC is a Must-See at Signature Theatre

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BWW Review:  Gloriously Sung TITANIC is a Must-See at Signature Theatre

There was never any question that Maury Yeston's almost operatic score for that epic tale of human tragedy, Titanic, was one of the Tony Award-winning musical's major strengths when it premiered on Broadway in 1997. Yeston, in fact, won the Tony that year for his feat. At Signature, the score acts as the centerpiece for an incredibly moving, intimate production brought to life by a fantastic cast.

To be truthful, my jaw dropped multiple times during the lengthy opening number that serves as an introduction to the ship, the officers and crew, and some of the more noteworthy passengers. The sound of a seventeen-piece orchestra (playing Josh Clayton's orchestrations) and a multitude of strong voices fill the black box in a way that no other Signature musical (that I can recall) has. Strong soloists abound - with a special shout out to Christopher Mueller who finally gets to show off his unbelievable pipes - and the harmonic blend is delightful. Every note is clear, crisp, and exact with just the right amount of emotion. In fact, I would dare say that the opening is the best sung number I can remember in my years of attending musicals at Signature. Even more impressive, that glorious singing continues for the duration of the performance. Special kudos must be given to Sound Designer Ryan Hickey for supporting this endeavor, but resisting any temptation to over amplify.

The musical isn't just about the music though - crucial as it is. Over the course of a swift two hours and thirty minutes or so (no plodding pacing here - thanks Director Eric Schaeffer), we get to know the officers, crew, and passengers - warts and all. Peter Stone's story/book and Yeston's lyrics provide a great deal of insight into each person, which makes learning of their fate all that much more involving. As acted by a cast of mostly Signature regulars, the players - both major and minor - become real to us. Take, for example, Tracy Lynn Olivera's perfectly comedic take on Alice Beane - a second-class passenger with a desperate desire to hob-knob with the exquisitely costumed (Frank Labovitz) first-class passengers - or Sam Ludwig's raw and emotional take on crew member Frederick Barrett who wants to nothing more than to get home to England to see his girl. Then there's Katie McManus' take on Kate McGowan, an unwed mother in search of a better life for her unborn child. Each of these actors sing the roles as well as you might expect if you've seen them in other musical performances, but also give memorable acting performances.

I would be remiss not to mention some other strong performances. As Ida and Isidor Strauss, Florence Lacey and John Leslie Wolfe brought a tear to my eye with their performance of "Still." Bobby Smith does his usual exceptional job as Thomas Andrews, the man who built the massive ship. He navigates the complex emotions the character must deal with as J. Bruce Ismay (Lawrence Redmond) pushes him and Captain E.J. Smith (Christopher Bloch) to get the boat to New York as fast as possible to make headlines (of the good sort). Every number - from the prologue to the affecting "Mr. Andrews' Vision" as the boat is sinking - is impeccably sung and emotionally on-point. Although the role of William Murdoch doesn't allow Kevin McAllister to showcase his considerable vocal talent, he made the man's torment abundantly clear without being too much over the top. The reserved performance made the character's demise all the more impactful. As William Hartley, Nick Lehan also proved exceptionally memorable. "Autumn" - a song I admittedly skip over on the cast recording - turned out to be one of my favorites as did Stephen Gregory Smith's heartfelt solo on "No Moon."

No matter how you slice it, Eric Schaeffer did a wonderful job casting this show. And speaking of a wonderful job, can we talk about his production concept? Staged in the round, the production has the potential to reach every audience member - both physically and emotionally. In most cases it does, though a turntable would have alleviated some issues I had with the blocking - at least from my seat on the aisle in the South section. The bare bones approach - with just enough lighting (Amanda Zieve) and other production elements (that won't be spoiled here) during the sinking scenes - serves the piece well and allow for a better emotional connection to the people on the ship, not necessarily the ship itself (which, let's face it, without the people, who really cares what happened to the ship?). Paul Tate DePoo III's nautical scenic design isn't only aesthetically pleasing, but also functional with all of the gangways. It helps Schaeffer keep the focus on the story and those experiencing 'the floating city.'

All told, this is a fantastic production and definitely one of my favorites of the 200+ shows I saw in 2016 - whether in the DC Metro Area, New York, or anywhere else.

Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with one intermission.

TITANIC plays at Signature Theatre - 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA - through January 29, 2017. For tickets, call the box office at 703-767-9771 or purchase them online.

Photo: The cast of TITANIC at Signature Theatre; by Paul Tate DePoo III.


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