A Night to Remember
Orpheus scores again with a story of a boat and an iceberg
by Jim Murchison
It is fitting in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic that we think about it and pay tribute to it. Unless you never listen to the radio, read the paper or watch television you’re certain to have heard something of it this year. There have been many films and documentaries that have explored the history of that fateful night.
I must confess that before Orpheus added the musical to this year’s schedule, I was largely unaware of it. It is certainly far more faithful to the actual story than the over-hyped, almost completely fictional James Cameron film. The story itself is so monumental and compelling that there is no need to add some invented and trite subplot.
The cast is gigantic, comprising many of the first, second and third class passengers and crew of the ship. It should allow for powerful choruses and moving numbers, provided that the play and the score are good. The Peter Stone play with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston won Tonys for Best Score, Best Book and Best Musical so I was sure that wouldn't be a problem. The other question was how would they handle the challenging technical aspects of the production. Before I go into that, I must give my spoiler alert to those readers that are unaware of the history; do not read the next paragraph.
Okay if we're alone now, I can tell you... the Titanic sunk. The budget for the New York production was 10 million dollars or so. It is my educated guess that Orpheus' budget was more limited, so there would be less available for the ship's trappings and certainly there would not be complicated hydraulics involved. Designer Margaret Coderre-Williams solution was to focus on the blueprints. Each backdrop was a rendering of a blueprint for a different area of the ship. The sinking was also done with a clever use of backdrops. It is the type of innovation that I love and admire in the theatre and whereas the big budget international productions make the ship the star, Orpheus was able to make the characters and the story the star.
While the whole production is impressive, there were some moments that stood out for me. Barrett's Song was performed movingly by Justin Hills as stoker Frederick Barrett. Not only were his vocals crisp and clean but his character lived in the song. The same can be said of Milton Dover as lookout Frederick Fleet. The song No Moon is staged with Dover stage left and very alone while the rest of the crew do the choral backup stage right. It is simple and beautiful and the audience gets to see the iceberg through his eyes.
...true strength of character in the face of adversity is what defines class, no matter your station in life...
Another fine moment is the duet, Still, between Isador and Ida Strauss played with tenderness by Eugene Oscapella and Barb Seabright-Moore. It underlines the central tragic theme and demonstrates that true strength of character in the face of adversity is what defines class, no matter your station in life.
Christine Moran and Jim Robertson play Alice and Edgar Beane and provide the bulk of the comic relief. Moras' Alice is performed effectively, as a woman comically obsessed with hobnobbing and Robertson's disdainful reactions as Edgar are delivered with the finesse of a classic vaudevillian.
Other notable performances were John Lister as the decidedly stoic Captain Smith, Jim Tanner as the ever-helpful chief steward Henry Etches and and Tony Keenleyside as the arrogant J Bruce Ismay who is the closest thing to the villain of the piece.
Artistic Director Deb Miller-Smith has assembled a team of directors and designers that make this production sail proudly. It is particularly nice to have a live orchestra conducted by musical director Paul Legault. It's a shame he didn't get a bow but it would have sacrificed a most effective curtain call. The Final singing of Godspeed Titanic performed in powerful chorus of the victims and survivors and ends with a poignant curtain call that separates the two groups to help illustrate the massive loss.
Ultimately it was humankind's greed and lust for fame that sunk the Titanic. The White Star line wanted to create a legend and they took unnecessary risks to try to make that happen. This production is a dramatic and well done example of the adage, "be careful what you wish for" done with respect for the tragedy of the event. Orpheus' production is not impeded with the same vanity that the actual Titanic team had, so it should be smooth sailing through its run.