Full Steam Ahead

On a stripped-down set of black metal scaffolding and simple black wooden cubes, Irving's Lyric Stage company makes the audience see things that aren't there. So inventive is director Drew Scott Harris' staging of this fine new production of the musical Titanic, and so convincing are its 37 actors, that by the end, the audience is sure they've glimpsed the gleaming decks, gilded salons and hellish coal-stoking rooms of the White Star Line's most famous luxury liner. Not to mention the giant iceberg that ended the ship's maiden run just after midnight on April 15, 1912.

The actors seem to see it all around them as they waltz on and off the set's three towering levels of unadorned platforms and stairs, so we do, too. That's theater magic, plain and simple, and this production offers two and a half hours of thoroughly magical entertainment on a plain and simple set (by Phil Hickox) that inspires the audience to imagine grandeur. Titanic is grand and glorious, the best musical by a local company this year, with dozens of well-trained voices singing hauntingly beautiful tunes and enough spectacle, real and imagined, to rival grand opera. What a joy to see it done so well.

With a story and book by Tony winner Peter Stone (Will Rogers Follies, My One and Only) and music and lyrics by Tony winner Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel), Titanic the musical, which won five Tonys in 1997, deals with its epic tragedy very differently from the ghastly, waterlogged 1997 James Cameron movie. For one thing, the musical doesn't telegraph the story's outcome the moment the lights go up onstage. Nor does it stoop to fabricating a sappy storyline about young star-crossed lovers from different social classes.

This Titanic keeps it closer to the facts, basing its characters on the real passengers who set sail on the ship, including John Jacob Astor (played by R. Bradford Smith) and his young wife, Madeleine (Michelle Jewett), Isidor and Ida Straus (Richard Rollin, Lois Sonnier) and Benjamin Guggenheim (Jeff Kinman). These "swells" join the hoi polloi dockside at the opening of Act 1 to sing "I Must Get on That Ship," expressing all the passengers' excitement about going aboard a vessel advertised as "a human metropolis, a complete civilization."

As the crowds hustle up the gangplanks, one of the lowly Irish coal stokers, Frederick Barrett (the amazing Eric Domuret), steps forward to wonder "How Did They Build Titanic?" The ship's captain, E.J. Smith (Jay Taylor), its designer Thomas Andrews (Brian Gonzales) and owner J. Bruce Ismay (Bradley Campbell) boast in song that R.M.S. Titanic is "The Largest Moving Object" on earth.

Throughout the first act, right up till the moment the boy in the crow's nest spots the ice, the atmosphere is that of a glittery, raucous party. The immigrants in the third-class cabins sing about their dreams of better lives in America. A second-class couple from Indianapolis, Alice and Edgar Beane (Amy Mills, Charles Ryan Roach), gossip about the first-class snobs and argue about Alice's desire to mingle with high society. The upper-crusters spend Sunday afternoon "Doing the Latest Rag" on the open deck.

Act 2 begins just after the collision with the iceberg. The officious first-class steward (Ricky Pope) rouses sleepy passengers with "Wake Up, Wake Up!" and herds them into the grand salon for life jackets and champagne. Meanwhile, Ismay, Andrews and the captain trade accusations for the accident in "The Blame."

Things get surreal and sad in the chaos of loading the first-class women and children into the few lifeboats available--a sequence done extraordinarily well at the Dupree Theater at the Irving Arts Center without the use of lifeboats, water or any tricky lighting gimmicks. The elderly Strauses remain together on board, singing the touching duet "Still" about their deep love for each other, even in the face of certain death. Survivors huddled in a lifeboat tableau offer a tribute to the doomed ship, "In Every Age," as Titanic disappears beneath the icy Atlantic. The finale is emotionally gut-wrenching as the ghosts of the dead join the living for the prayerful anthem "Godspeed Titanic."

Gorgeous in its simplicity, Titanic is superbly performed by a large ensemble, many of whom play numerous roles. Most memorable is Eric Domuret as Barrett, the coal-streaked Irishman who befriends Harold Bride (Shane Hurst), the dedicated Marconi radioman. Domuret and Hurst share two big songs, "The Proposal" and "The Night Was Alive," and their voices blend like butter and cream. Domuret is an impressive Irish tenor who infuses every note with tender nuances of his good-hearted character.

Brian Gonzales, Jay Taylor and Bradley Campbell stand together as a powerful trio portraying the men in charge of the ship. They have stupendous voices. Chip Wood is good as the captain's right-hand man, First Officer Murdoch. Ricky Pope, a first-class singer, makes his first-class steward, Mr. Etches, snooty but vulnerable. Megan Woodall, Whitney Cone and Connie Marie Brown join their lovely voices as three charming Irish lasses, all named Kate.

The comic relief in this Titanic is Amy Mills as the parvenu, Alice Beane. Mills can belt a song like crazy, and she makes her character as gutsy and lovable as the Unsinkable Molly Brown, who's nowhere to be seen in this version of the story. Charles Ryan Roach is fine, too, as Alice's beleaguered hubby. When she is saved and he isn't, it's lump-in-throat time.

Only quibbles with Titanic are over technical things. Most of the costumes designed by Billie Boston are head-to-toe black. Against the all-black set, this occasionally makes the white-glove-clad crew members and passengers look like they're singing in a minstrel show. All that light-sucking black-against-black must have been a nightmare for the lighting designer, the ironically named Susan A. White, but she's done a good job keeping the actors illuminated. Also, small detail, but somebody needs to mop the dust off the black stage floor before curtain time.

A show this big is sink or swim for any theater company. But by ingeniously placing the emphasis on spectacular performances instead of special effects, Lyric Stage makes its production of Titanic a night to remember.

Amazing how good actors and the right director can elevate a so-so script. Quad C Theatre at Collin County Community College in Plano has a spiffy staging right now of Rebecca Gilman's Boy Gets Girl, the mediocre drama about stalking produced by Echo Theatre at the Bath House just this past March.

Quad C director Gail Cronauer and her cast of student actors make this play so much better than it deserves to be. They give the characters nice edge, as well as dignity. They also infuse the dialogue with some emotional heft and a lot of humor, which Echo failed to do for the most part.

Sarah Saunders plays Theresa, a Manhattan magazine writer who politely dumps a blind date, Tony (James Dougherty). He turns out to be a nutzoid who won't take no for an answer. He stalks Theresa till she's forced to quit her job, change her name and move away to escape his threats. Pretty much your basic Lifetime movie, which playwright Gilman jokes about even within her overlong, overwrought two-act play.

What's nice here is that Saunders interprets the role of Theresa as a tightly wound but very nice know-it-all, not the flinty bitch that she might be. That's important because the audience needs to rev up some sympathy for her as Tony's stalking tactics get scarier. By the end, we need to care deeply about Theresa, and with Saunders we do. In the Echo production, the actress playing Theresa was so unlikable, the audience was rooting for the stalker to find his prey and slice her to ribbons.

Also good at Quad C are Nima Farkhak as Theresa's editor, Howard, and Duc Nguyen as Mercer, "the new guy" on staff at the magazine. Both actors show remarkable ease at working in the intimate space in the Black Box Theatre. Erin Phalon is a caution as the miniskirted, taffy-brained secretary, Harriet, who unwittingly aids the stalker in his pursuit. Mary Eilts is lovely as a compassionate cop trying to protect Theresa from Tony. Only one role comes up short. Nicolas Flowers is about 50 years too young to be playing the septuagenarian pornographer, Les, whom Theresa begrudgingly interviews and then befriends. Still, even miscast, Flowers works some much-needed laughs into the grim scenes he shares with Theresa.

Big ups, too, to sound designer Adam DeWitt for a witty soundtrack throughout the play. When Theresa and Tony's first date hits a dead spot and conversation falters, up comes the Beatles' "Help!" The audience gets a nice giggle out of that one.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner