“Titanic” flows beautifully, but a little broad
The touring show at the Milwaukee Theatre lacks deep emotion or a compelling score, despite some talented performances.
It sounds silly, but the first thought I had when Titanic: the Musical launched into its first scene at the Milwaukee Theatre was “There are so many people!” Sure enough, the cast comprises about 40. The sheer bulk of voices makes for lovely group numbers, and the musical does an excellent job of weaving characters in and out of scenes to create a natural sense of movement.
But the numbers also hinder. The musical followed several personal stories of the ship’s crew and passengers – none of the fictional, James Cameron variety, as his unrelated 1997 movie opened after this show’s original Broadway staging – but none were covered thoroughly enough to snag an emotional response. The musical presented main ideas well, but the lack of supporting details watered down potentially powerful moments.
The massive cast can be divided by their travel class and therefore social position, be it first, second or third, with crew members mingling among all three. In first class, travelers wine and dine in the saloon, chattering with Captain Smith (Dale W. Given) about mileage reports (and iceberg warnings) and awaiting dinner announcements from bandleader Wallace Hartley (Diego Diaz). In second, passengers like Alice and Edgar Beane (Angela Shultz and Todd Tucker) eagerly study their social betters, the spirited Alice providing quick, gossipy backstories for them, while couple Charles Clark (Sam Sherwood) and Caroline Neville (Ashlie Roberson) discuss getting married after the voyage. And in steerage, a trio known as the “Three Kates” dream of America.
The first act takes us swiftly through the pre-iceberg portion of the Titanic’s voyage, checking in efficiently over the course of three days. The musical’s trick to introducing characters and passing time without making the exposition tedious is simple: sing, sing, sing. The cast barely stops. Even the crew reports the Titanic’s coordinates with a subtle lilt.
The musical had a lot of smart tricks up its sleeve to introduce characters and move time along without tedious exposition. In fact, the cast barely stops singing. Even the crew reports Titanic’s coordinates with a subtle lilt.
These songs help expand on the large cast’s characters and juxtapose the three social classes. First class, dining with the captain, sings about “What a Remarkable Age This Is.” The Three Kates, in third class, share their more modest dreams down on F Deck, with “Lady’s Maid.”
All of this character development is nice, but is broad rather than deep. The show doesn’t give us enough time to fully attach ourselves to Charles and Caroline, the Three Kates, or even the crew members.
And amid this all is one annoying, repetitive voice, belonging to Mr. Ismay (Chance Blakely), the incredibly wealthy owner of the Titanic. He insists over and over that the Captain increase speed, regardless of danger. It’s an important detail in the disaster, but these demands come much too frequently. Adding to the irritation is Blakely’s choice of speaking voice for Mr. Ismay, a stereotypically nasal and snooty tone that’s a little too on the nose.
When the ship hits the fateful iceberg at the end of the first act, the immediate expectation is that the second, tracing the early morning hours of the Titanic’s collapse, will be filled with chaos and emotion. Instead, the musical meanders, lacking any sense of urgency.
In first and second class, passengers wait in the dining saloon singing the dull “Dressed in Your Pyjamas in the Grand Salon.” A stronger sense of reality comes from Ismay, the Captain, and the Titanic’s architect Thomas Andrews (Paul Sandberg), who place “The Blame” in the radio room. But then the tragedy of third class passengers being locked below deck was blandly represented by the Three Kates’ “Staircase.”
None of the songs, even the better ones, are particularly memorable. Part of the problem is that a track recording, rather than a live orchestra, supports the singing. A lot of power is lost because of fuzzy, undefined sound.
The highlight of Titanic: the Musical comes from Sanders, as the doomed ship’s architect. As the ship sinks, Andrews rolls out the Titanic’s blueprints, kneels before the paper, and frantically thinks aloud, trying to troubleshoot his design flaws. The spotlight shines on Sandberg, singing “Mr. Andrew’s Vision,” while several actors struggle up a staircase behind him in painful, beautiful slow motion.
Titanic plays again tonight only (Saturday, Oct. 13) at the Milwaukee Theatre at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $38 online or call 800-745-3000.