Since sinking on its maiden voyage 110 years ago this week, the RMS Titanic has been the subject of numerous books, films, exhibits, plays, and pretty much everything else you can imagine. As someone who grew up with TV repeats of 1958’s A Night to Remember, I—like so many others—have long been fascinated by the story of the largest, fastest, most opulent ocean liner of its time that, despite having been declared “unsinkable,” went to its rest in the cold waters of the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912, after hitting an iceberg. Like millions of others around the world, I swooned to repeat viewings of James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning Titanic, a meticulously researched film that centered on the totally fictional love story between first and third-class passengers. (Nope, sorry, Jack and Rose did not exist.) Still, it’s safe to say that most people today know the story from that incredibly successful film.
If you go into Milwaukee Rep’s production of Titanic, the Musical expecting a theatrical retelling of Cameron’s film, though, you are bound to be disappointed. From a book by Peter Stone with music by Maury Yeston, the show—which also premiered in 1997—hews far closer to the actual, nonfiction events of 1914, eschewing imaginary romance and focusing instead on a handful of real passengers from each of the three separate class divisions aboard Titanic, as well as some key crew members. The result is a powerful, majestic, almost operatic retelling of a tragedy that killed more than 1500 people that will stay with you for a long time.
This production, directed by Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements, makes no attempt to replicate Cameron’s powerful visuals. There are no special effects here beyond Mike Tutaj’s omnipresent projections…other than one (literally) show-stopping moment when a drinks cart rolls by itself across and off of the stage as the passengers and crew suddenly become aware that something is very, very wrong. The play needs no more magic than that to depict the incredible scope of what was an entirely preventable tragedy.
Stone’s book has no real lead characters, but it offers a clear view of the complicated relationships among three men. The first is the White Star Line owner J. Bruce Ismay (Andrew Varela in a strong performance), whose single-minded pursuit of something even more historic than simply launching a “floating city”—he was focused on speed—is usually considered to be a major cause of what happened. Second is the ship’s architect, Thomas Andrews (Jeremy Landon Hayes), who, alone among those in charge and with less real power than any of the others, knew the ship’s strengths and weaknesses backward and forward. The third member of this triumvirate is the ship’s captain, Edward Smith (a stolid David Hess), a 40+ year veteran on his final voyage before retirement. Ismay’s constant harping about speed clearly gets to Smith as he inches the ship’s boilers toward greater and greater power, bringing the Titanic closer and closer to the doom that awaits it.
The play’s focus shifts among the passengers and crew: we get glimpses of the famous rich folks, among whom are Astors and Strauses (Isidor, the founder of Macy’s, and his wife Ida, both of whom went down with the ship) and Benjamin Guggenheim, as Second Class passenger Alice Beane (Lillian Castillo, who recently shined as a gangster in Marriott’s Kiss Me, Kate, and whose effervescent performance is the single liveliest part of the musical) strives to find chances to hobnob with the upper crust. Alice and her husband, along with upper-class Lady Caroline and her middle-class fiancé (not quite Kate and Leo, but we take what we can get), represent those a notch or several below the top-level passengers but not crowded into steerage (third-class). At that level, we meet a group of Irish women named Kate, led by Emma Rose Brooks’ emotional turn as an unmarried pregnant woman, as well as many others.
Other people we meet are crew members like Head Stoker Henry Barrett (Nathaniel Hackmann), who just wants to get back to propose to his girlfriend; wireless operator Harold Bride (Steve Pacek), who fatally stops forwarding iceberg sightings to the captain after nothing happens with the first ones; First-Class Steward Henry Etches (Matt Daniels, at turns comic and officious); First Officer William Murdoch (Evan Harrington), who was actually in charge of the bridge when a lookout named Frederick Fleet (Julio Rey) sighted the iceberg in the calm waters and moonless skies…too late to avoid a crash.
Everyone’s voices are powerful and lovely, though they are in the service of a grand and moving, but largely forgettable, score by Yeston that nonetheless won the Tony in a very weak year. (The moving duet “The Proposal”/”The Night Was Alive” by Barrett and Bride is one of the most lovely moments. Go ahead: name another.) But it’s Clements’ direction that stands out here as he takes full advantage of the sparse but flexible set by Tim Mackabee to recreate both large cast moments and quietly effective smaller ones. One lovely and humanizing touch is his use of third-grade performer Lainey Techtmann, wonderfully fun as well as poignant in brief flashes of her first-class life aboard the ship. The unspoken wonder in the eyes of a small child—both at the ship and its destiny—bring this all home and make it that much more personal.
Other standout moments include a blame-throwing argument among Ismay, Andrews, and Smith; Jason Fassl’s brilliantly stark lighting in a scene with Barrett and two other stokers; a full-cast first act finale (in shadowy semi-light) that ends with Fleet’s shocked sighting of the berg and the awful sound of the crash (provided by Sound Designer Cricket S. Myers); the painful and horrific loading of the too-few lifeboats (Titanic carried only twenty when it needed closer to the 64 which were its maximum; Ismay had cut the number drastically to accommodate the panoramic views of first-class passengers); some gorgeous Jenn Rose choreography; and the beautiful and aspirational “Lady’s Maid,” sung by third-class passengers who believe they are headed for better lives in America.
Titanic the Musical is not the greatest musical ever written, but it powerfully gives us a look into the disaster and some of the people who famously or infamously were part of it. Jack and Rose may not be anywhere in sight, but it is still a poignant and awesome reminder that nature—both human and that of the world around us—too often collide to lead to horrific results. The play runs through May 14; tickets are available at Milwaukee Rep’s website.