IRVING All this Titanic needs is a boat.
Irving Lyric Stage’s production of the musical Titanic, which opened last week, is awash in great voices floating on waves of sound from a fabulous pit orchestra. But while this show’s aural elements sail majestically, its visuals sink like a stone.
This tuneful retelling of the Titanic disaster of 1912 by Peter Stone and Maury Yeston, which debuted on Broadway in 1997 and earned five Tony awards (including best musical) during its two-year run, owes no debt to any of the film versions of the story. There is no Jack and Rose, and no one’s heart goes on. Instead, the legendary sailing and sinking of the famed luxury liner is told by various crew members, White Star Line executives and passengers. There is no real lead in this show. Instead there is an unusual emphasis on ensemble numbers.
But that doesn’t mean some of the solo work does not ring in your ears long after the ship has gone down (only in a figurative sense in this case, since we never see so much as a smokestack). Ryan Appleby, as Titanic builder Thomas Andrews, opens the proceedings with a number that sets an incredibly high standard for the rest of the cast to match. But nearly all of them meet the challenge. Most of the life-jacketed denizens of this show sing like they have only a few hours to live.
Among the other most outstanding performances is Anthony Fortino, as below-decks crewman Fred Barrett. He has the same sort of robust, tenor-leaning voice displayed by Appleby, and he takes advantage of being one of the few characters given enough stage time to project a personality.
Also exceptional are two actors who are frequently seen on Fort Worth stages: Greg Dulcie, as the pushy White Star Line chairman Joseph Ismay, and Randy Pearlman as Henry Etches, a sort of maître d’ who seems to be more in control than the ship’s captain, Edward John Smith (James Williams). Both manage to make their characters stand out in this very crowded field.
If you had to pick a star of this show, it would be the cast as a whole. One of the flaws of this musical is that it lacks that hummable hit or two that nearly all successful musicals contain. The choruses, though, are terrific and this production, directed by Drew Scott Harris, does a superb job with them.
So there is little to fault about what you hear from this show. There are some roles where acting chops have been traded for vocal ability, and there is a certain sameness to many of the numbers, especially in the overly long first act. But, for the most part, the music performed by musical director Jay Dias and his philharmonic-sized pit ensemble falls easily on the ear.
Then there is the show’s look — or lack thereof.
Harris moves his players around the stage with the brisk efficiency of a deck officer. Ryan Matthieu Smith’s period costumes are right on the mark.
Otherwise, you are staring at an empty stage. There are no sets. All we get are a few stairs made from steel girders and brass rails. At best, it is boring. At worst, like when the helmsman sits down, throws his legs over the edge of pit and pretends to be holding the ship’s wheel, it is downright silly.
If there has ever been a production that begged more loudly for the use of projections, I haven’t seen it. Because behind all the nothing downstage, we get even more nothing upstage — just a huge, blank backdrop that displays nothing but walls of color. Some vintage film footage or a few stills from the era could have done so much to enhance the impact of the show’s music. But those opportunities, like the ship, are totally lost.
So there are a lot of good things to be said about the sounds coming from this show. But if you go, I would recommend you just close your eyes and imagine you are listening to this musical on the radio. At least that way you will have something interesting to look at while you listen.