Chicago Theatre Review
Smooth and Polished as Glass
Titanic – Griffin Theatre Company
Because the audience already knows the sad, tragic conclusion to this show, the sight and sound of this large (and largely talented) cast of characters joyously entering the stage, unaware of their fate, suddenly stopping and gazing up wide-eyed and openmouthed at the magnificence of the shiny, brand-new behemoth on which they’re about to set sail, provides the first of many poignant moments in this beautiful production.
Director Scott Weinstein and Choreographer Sawyer Smith artfully stage their 20 actors, constantly moving around, on and through Joe Schermoly’s sparse, multilevel set, during an extended opening scene composed of songs that build toward one of musical theatre’s most beautiful anthems (performed here with soul and spirit, thanks to Musical Director, Elizabeth Doran, in this mostly sung-through drama).
Thomas Andrews, the Titanic’s designer, opens the show marveling at the reality of his completed architectural feat (“In Every Age”). Fred Barrett, the head stoker enters, stopping in his tracks singing, “How Did They Build Titanic?” He’s joined by lookout Frederick Fleet, wireless operator Harold Bride and other crew members admiring the nautical wonder they’re about to board, singing “There She Is.” The “Loading Inventory” is musically inspected by Henry Etches, Head Steward, the Bellboy and several other officers, while the Director of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, the vessel’s commander, Captain Smith, and Andrews proudly sing that the Titanic is “The Largest Moving Object.” The entire ensemble of passengers and staff rush toward the gangplank singing “I Must Get On That Ship,” and finally, with all the travelers aboard, the company lift their voices in a prayerful farewell that stirs our emotions and raises goosebumps, the gorgeous “Godspeed Titanic.”
In one final, fateful moment, a single passenger races down the dock shouting for the ship to turn back. Too late to join this historic voyage, he ironically misses the maiden crossing but lives to tell others about his good karma.
As each cluster of actors enters, authentically adorned in Rachel Sypniewski’s early 20th century costumes, they’re dressed to portray either the seafaring staff or the passengers. But no sooner do many of the actors enter as one character then they leave the stage and return clothed as someone else. The effect is that this already large, 20-member cast is, in fact, twice as big.
Maury Yeston (“Phantom,” “Grand Hotel,” “Nine”) composed a period-appropriate score that boasts symphonic melodies, reminiscent of compositions by Edwardian English musicians Edward Elgar and Vaughan Williams, as well as several heartfelt ballads, romantic waltzes and spirited folk dances and ragtime. The book by Peter Stone (“1776,” “Sugar,” “My One and Only”) is historically accurate, depicting the doomed ship’s maiden voyage, although some names and circumstances were changed for dramatic purposes. In addition, it also portrays the hopes and dreams shared by many of the passengers and the ship’s staff. The musical also denounces the rigid, turn-of-the-century British hierarchy that prevented 2nd and 3rd class passengers from mingling with those in 1st class. This was the same system that permitted only the wealthiest and prestigious to board the lifeboats after the ship struck the iceberg. While the original 1997 production was nominated for and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Score and Book, Griffin Theatre’s production marks the first major staging of a new, scaled-down Chamber version of the musical, adapted by original Broadway cast member, Don Stephenson.
Each and every actor in this remarkable production is a star. Handsome Eric Lindahl makes a sympathetic Thomas Andrews, the ship’s architect responsible for cutting the corners that may have been responsible for so many deaths. Mr. Lindahl’s beautiful voice is a perfect fit for his musical soliloquies and duets. Justin Adair, who excels in every show he’s cast, is magnificent as stoker, Fred Barrett, as well as other characters. His numbers, including “Barrett’s Song,” “The Proposal” and his part in the lovely “We’ll Meet Tomorrow” showcase a young actor whose vocal excellence is continually unmatched. Neala Barron brings selective humor and heartfelt need to her portrayal of social climber, Alice Beane, with Jake Mahler lending his strength, support and understanding as her put-upon husband, Edgar.
John Keating, who calls to mind a taller version of actor Jim Parsons, brings a fine voice, excellent comic timing and a boatload of emotion to 1st Class Steward, Henry Etches, as well as to other minor characters. Nick Graffagna is sweet, supportive and stalwart as a young Bellboy, and Royen Kent radiates in each of his scenes as valiant Radioman Harold Bride, as well as in his appearances playing various passengers. Patrick Byrnes masters both a convincing Scottish burr and a self-effacing characterization as 1st Officer William Murdoch, while Scott Allen Luke creates a dastardly realistic and pompous J. Bruce Ismay, the Director of the cruise line. Lovely Laura McClain makes a strong and beautifully sung Caroline Neville with Matt Edmonds providing a suave and dapper love interest, Charles Clarke. Kevin Stangler is a good-looking and graceful hoofer of an Irish lad, Jim Farrell. Kelley Abell, Courtney Jones and Christine Mayland Perkins form the delightful Irish trio of Kates, all of whom dream of a better life in America.
Two of the more mature actors stand out among a mostly youthful cast. Talented Emily Grayson, who demonstrates her unique versatility during the opening number, humorously playing a variety of traveling companions for several male passengers, is a beautiful, elegantly brave Ida Strauss. Sean Thomas matches her valor as her courageous, selfless husband, Isador. Their lovely 11th hour ballad, “Still,” is one of the finest moments in this production.
This is a polished, worthy, well-sung and acted production of a seldom produced musical that shouldn’t be missed. Bringing this Chamber version of Yeston and Stone’s creation to life isn’t an easy task because it’s not a concert version of the show. It’s a full production filled with exciting performances and gorgeous music. If anything, this version of the show demands even more from Director Mr. Weinstein and his superb cast, most of whom are challenged to portray a variety of roles. Elizabeth Doran does double duty as both Musical Vocal Director and Conductor/keyboardist for her fine, six-piece pit orchestra, that sounds appropriately like a shipboard band. Every detail about this production is masterful and honest. This “Titanic” is a voyage well worth making, “smooth and polished as glass.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 18-December 7 by Griffin Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Theater Wit box office, by calling 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.