By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
This isn't the maiden voyage for the musical Titanic at Lyric Stage. The company did it in 2003 using the same staging by director Drew Scott Harris and the same stripped-down set designed by Scott Osborne that merely suggests, with three levels of steps and metal railings, the gleaming decks, deluxe "saloons" and hellfire coal-stoking rooms of the White Star Line's "city on the sea."
We liked this Titanic 11 years ago and we like it now. It's a gorgeous production, just the sort of grand piece of American musical theater Lyric Stage does so well, with 35 musicians in the pit and 38 actor-singers on the stage.
With a story and book by Peter Stone (Will Rogers Follies, My One and Only) and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel), Titanic won five Tony Awards in 1997. Musicals have grown smaller since then. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, this year's Tony darling, has a cast of two, with four musicians. The only really big musical on Broadway this past season was the revue After Midnight, with an on-stage orchestra and dozens of singers and dancers. It's closing at the end of June. Big musicals cost too much to sustain if seats aren't full every night.
That's why Lyric Stage's mission of reviving American musicals and producing them with original orchestrations and a full-to-bursting pit is so essential. If Lyric doesn't receive the regional Tony (awarded to a NYC company this year, ahem) sometime in the next five years, it'll be a cryin' shame.
But back to this unweepy (unlike the 1997 movie) Titanic, going down in spectacular fashion with 35 numbers (some just a few bars long) in a mere 2.5 hours. Stone's story of the April 15, 1912, tragedy sticks close to facts. We see millionaire John Jacob Astor (played by Jackie L. Kemp) and his teenage wife (Meghan Miller) boarding alongside Macy's department store founder Isidor Straus and wife Ida (Jay Taylor, Lois Sonnier Hart, who played the same role in 2003), and Benjamin Guggenheim (Neil Rogers). "I Must Get on That Ship," they sing in the buoyant opening.
A tight-T-shirt-filling Irish coal stoker, Frederick Barrett (Anthony Fortino in an impressive performance, voice- and T-shirt-wise), wonders "How Did They Build Titanic?" A second-class couple, Alice and Edgar Beane (Mary Gilbreath Grim, Mark Oristano), mix uneasily with elite passengers as she tries to sneak into the afternoon tea dance. A class-conscious steward, Mr. Etches (the terrific Randy Pearlman), keeps chasing Alice back to her place with the hoi polloi. Farther down, in doomed third-class steerage, three Irish girls named Kate (Katie Moyes Williams, Kylie Arnold, Erika Larsen) sing about dreams of life in America.
Act 1 ends with the kid in the crow's nest spotting you-know-what. Act 2 is a high-spirited send-off to characters who go down with the ship.
The blend of big voices against the strings and woodwinds from conductor Jay Dias' orchestra makes for an enormous sound. A fitting first-class production that's smooth sailing all the way.