Griffin Theatre’s “Titanic”: Their Ship Has Come In

My immediate concern upon entering the Theater Witblack box to see the Griffin Theatre production of the Tony Award-winning musical “Titanic” (music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, book by Peter Stone): how will they pull off this huge show on a stage roughly the size of a first-class stateroom?

The answer is, very cleverly.

Director Scott Weinstein has used his 20-person cast and, amazingly, a single stage set to great effect in telling the story of the great ship that achieved the renown its owner, the odious J. Bruce Ismay (played to smarmy perfection by Scott Allen Luke as a guy you love to hate), craved, albeit not in the way originally intended.

This scaled down version (the original Broadway production had a cast of 45) was re-orchestrated by Evanston’s own Ian Weinberger for a “chamber version” of the show that ran in London last year to great acclaim. You almost believe that the six off-stage musicians (capably led by Music DirectorElizabeth Doran, who also plays keyboards) is the doomed orchestra on board the Titanic.

While it is at first difficult to reconcile the intimacy of the small theater space with the a story of the ship that was “the largest man-made moving object on earth” (as we are told a few times during the show), it eventually makes sense, bringing the individual stories of the passengers into sharp focus. We are, literally, closer to the cast of characters, and that goes a long way to building empathy.

The set design, by Joe Schermoly, makes the absolute most of the space. It’s a deceptively simple stage set, with a back wall inset with small round windows that, when lit, become the portholes of the ship at night (or, in one instance, provide the illusion of the iceberg scraping the hull). Two moveable metal staircases, a few suitcases and chairs, and a small sign projection help carve out space for the different settings.

Yeston’s music is gorgeous, and the vocal arrangements and harmonies are at times spirit lifting and occasionally heartbreaking. There are some lovely, strong voices in the cast, including most notablyJustin Adair as the stoker, Fred Barret, and Courtney Jones as steerage passenger Kate McGowan. Many of the actors are double and triple cast, taking the part of first-class passengers in one scene and third in the next. Emily Grayson has a quick but bravura turn as she morphs from one first class-passenger to the next with nothing more than a hat and body language.

Second-class passenger Alice Beane, woman who worships the elite and famous passengers aboard and desperately wants to be part of their world, is a character that can go one of two ways: charming but misguided, or irritating. As played on Broadway by the luminous Victoria Clark, you cheered for her and sympathized; as played here by Neala Barron, the character grated, and her vocals were uneven.

I wish that Eric Lindahl, as ship architect Thomas Andrews, had been given more to do than tote around the ship’s plans, but his last scene—where he feverishly tries to redo the plans to achieve a different end—was a strong one. John Keating got well-earned laughs as the supercilious but loyal Henry Etches, the first-class butler.

Revisiting the Titanic—I saw the original on Broadway in 1998—was worth the trip. The ending tableau and song, “In Every Age/Godspeed, Titanic,” was a heart tugger, and the lack of space did not take away from the stirring sentiment. If only it had ended differently—but that is one piece of history that will never be rewritten.

 

Griffin Theatre‘s production of “Titanic” runs through Dec. 7 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, 773-975-8150. Tickets are available online or in person at the Theater Wit box office.