The joke is that no one would want to see “Titanic: The Musical” because they already know the ending. In fact, though, that foreknowledge makes the show better, as it lends an air of tragic tension to the proceedings.
“Titanic: The Musical,” having its regional premiere at the SCERA Shell, is an enormous undertaking for an outdoor theater, where audiences are often more interested in picnicking than in absorbing a night of insightful drama. It also requires a huge cast, agile singing voices and a better-than-average set. (It doesn’t have to sink, but it can’t just sit there, either.) As long as the show isn’t an utter failure, the SCERA will get credit just for trying it.
Providentially, the production is quite good, too. Directed by Jan Shelton with musical direction by Robert Bowden, the cast of 70-plus displays an unusually high level of synergetic professionalism, as if everyone realized the magnitude of their endeavor.
Unlike a certain film we could name, the stage play includes only real-life characters. Second-class passenger Alice Beane (Tracy Whitlock), a rabid social climber, fills us in on the identities of the first-class passengers: Strauses, Astors and Guggenheims, all elite and haughty.
Meanwhile, down in third class, there are three girls named Kate, one of whom (Arly Crawford) is already slightly pregnant but falls for fellow third-classer Jim (Jon Naseath) nonetheless.
The music, recorded by Marden Pond, sounds wonderful. Maury Yeston’s Tony-winning score is grand, walking the line between classic musical-theater and modern pop-opera. (As an indication just how musical this musical is, the opening number is 15 minutes long.)
Peter Stone’s lyrics (also a Tony-winner) are sophisticated. The play’s best moments, fittingly, rarely involve dialogue. It’s the songs that run the show.
Chad Taylor sets the tone as ship-designer Thomas Andrews, singing of man’s efforts to out-do himself in every age. He has a haunting reprise near the end, discovering what he might have done differently to prevent the tragedy; here Taylor proves he has the rare ability to act and sing at the same time.
Shawn Mortenson has a chilling and ominous moment as stoker Frederick Barrett, singing of the disturbing rate at which the Titanic is accelerating — part of ship owner Bruce Ismay’s (Larry Whipple) attempt to impress the wealthy passengers.
In an easily overlooked role of chief steward Henry Etches, Josh Tenney shines, particularly in “What a Remarkable Age This Is,” where he directs the dinner proceedings. He is cheerful and personable, and a fine addition to the large cast of characters, which also includes Marc Haddock as noble Capt. E.J. Smith and Doug Zaugg as endearing radioman Harold Bride.
This is ensemble work at its finest, and also its most perilous: Without a “main character” to care about, the audience might wind up not caring about anyone.
This becomes a problem after the ship sinks, when the show becomes more history lesson than emotional drama. The loading of the lifeboats is a sweetly poignant moment, but once everyone has been consigned to his or her fate, things are considerably less impactful. Having so many couples to keep track of forces the audience to spread its compassion too thin. It’s as though we’re expected to care about the entire passenger list, and I don’t know if that’s possible in two hours.
As usual with the SCERA, some actors’ microphones work and some don’t, and all of them behave erratically. This is distracting when one singer can be heard while the person singing the very next line cannot be.
It is an impressive show, though, to say the least. Its weaknesses are outweighed by its high ambitions, its significant accomplishments and its ability to stir the emotions. To that point, it’s just like the Titanic itself — the difference, of course, being that the boat sank while the show stays steadily afloat.
We were all set for this to be a huge disaster, pardon the pun. It seemed like SCERA rushed out to get the rights to the show -- they were the first theater in the region to do it -- without stopping to consider whether they have the resources to do it right, and we were nervous it was going to be a flop. I was quite glad to see it turn out so well, and impressed with everything the SCERA did to make such a big show work in their community-theater environment.