by Lynn on June 8, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Story and Book by Peter Stone
Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston
Directed by Thom Sutherland
Choreography by Cressida Carré
Set and Costumes by David Woodhead
Lighting by Howard Hudson
Sound by Gareth Owen
Starring: Matt Beveridbe
Greg Castiglioni
Scarlett Courtney
Grace Eccle
Scott Garnham
Celia Graham
Simon Green
Ben Heppner
James Hume
Philip Rham
Judith Street
Samuel J. Weir

A gripping story with a wonderful score marred by the over-amplification of the sound.

The Story. Well we all know it. In April, 1912 the world’s newest, biggest, most celebrated, indestructible ship called the Titanic set sail from England for New York on her maiden voyage, hit an iceberg and sank 94 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Twelve hundred people died because there weren’t enough life-boats.

The musical looks at a cross section of people who made that voyage, from the third class passengers looking for a fresh start in America; the second class passengers, a bit better off, but still looking for opportunity in a place where class is not as distinct as it is in England; to the rich first class passengers for whom such travel was an everyday occurrence.

There are the service people working the ship, from the lowly stoker and telegraph man taking all coded messages and keeping things straight; to the stewards who had worked on other vessels and knew the first class passengers from before; to the arrogant owner of the line that built the Titanic to the designer who suffered guilt that the design wasn’t better and might have saved lives, and the captain who also took heat for what happened.

The Production. You get the sense of size of the ship from David Woodhead’s design. The back wall of the set is composed of riveted plates that go up to out of view. In front of that is the upper deck with railings along the outside of it.

As we file into the theatre a man in a grey suit sits centre stage at a table, writing. Who he is and what he’s writing on the day of the maiden voyage is anybody’s guess. We learn later this is Thomas Andrews, the man who designed the Titanic. But why director Thom Southerland has the character sitting there writing for the whole time the audience files in is anybody’s guess. And what he’s writing is a mystery

In fact the show begins with Joseph Ismay, the Chairman of the Board of the White Star Shipping Line that paid for the building of the Titanic. He sings the poetic song “In Every Age” which establishes that in every age there is something that stands apart. It might be the Pyramids in one age and the Titanic in another—a floating city. The song sets the tone, mood and grandeur of the piece. While Simon Green who plays Ismay, sings the song crisply, I’m concerned that the amplification seems overdone in this solo song and I was sitting in the centre of the middle section. Hmmmm.

Passengers arrive and to a person stand facing the audience and look up and react to seeing this monster of a ship. Their mouths gape. The image of the ship (which we can’t see) is locked in our imagination.

A high moveable structure of stairs creates many locations on that ship, including the lookout for the man who has to watch for anything in front of the ship. In this case it’s icebergs.

When the ship sets off (a blaring “Godspeed Titanic”) a line of people, their backs to us, move backwards downstage waving, with the people on the boat looking at them waving back. The illusion of the boat moving off to sea is beautifully suggested in Southerland’s stylish direction. There are so many delicate directorial touches in the production.

The character of Bell is the lookout. He is played with focus, attention and concern by Samuel J. Weir and is wonderful. He stands at the top of the moveable staircase, looking out in the darkness for anything that might be in the way. The temperature has dropped rapidly. There has been a steady stream of telegrams informing the captain that there are icebergs that have been spotted in their area. He ignores them. Ismay demands that the ship go faster in order to reach New York in record speed. All this makes Bell concerned. The music is quiet but throbbing, insistent. Bell peers out into the blackness not able to see anything until he does. (perhaps a religious expletive followed by) “ICEBERG STRAIGHT AHEAD” We know what’s coming but this scene is still tremendously gripping.

Who is responsible is expressed in an over amplified “The Blame” in which Ismay, Andrews and the Captain fling blame to each other.

There is true heroism in the story. Isidor Straus (who owned Macy’s) and Ida, his wife of 40 years, chose to stay on the sinking ship together and not be separated. This is beautifully expressed in the song “Still” in which the two—played by Ben Heppner and Judith Street—express that they are still together after all these years.

There were not enough life-boats so the women and children and one cowardly Joseph Ismay got in the lifeboats, while the men stayed on the ship and knew they would die. In dire times, characters helped others.

Designer David Woodhead does a splendid job of suggesting the sinking ship. Part of the front tilts up causing a great raked effect on the floor. Andrews holds on to the railing while he dangles down from it until he has to let go. Gripping image.

Perhaps the most moving image is a group of survivors who were picked up by the Carpathia, wearing blankets with the Carpathia printed on the back, looking at a wall with the word Titanic at the top and all the names of the people who died printed in row after row, as they sing “Godspeed Titanic.”

Comment. I loved this musical when it first opened on Broadway. I love the sweep of the music, the articulate and literary nature of the lyrics. But because the whole enterprise is over-amplified in this production the lyrics are unintelligible in many cases. Most often you can’t even tell who is singing or speaking. You have to rove your eyes over every face to see whose mouth is moving and assume they are talking or singing. And in scenes where the company is singing the sound is ear-splitting and the music is distorted to sounding like noise.

An exception is “Barrett’s Song” beautifully sung by Matt Beveridge as Barrett, a stoker. He is singing longingly of a girl he left behind. In an interesting bit of casting, Ben Heppner plays Isidor Straus. Mr. Heppner is of course the great operatic tenor until he retired from the operatic stage recently. His career is now going in different direction of performing. The quality of his singing his one song (“Still) is not in question. What is of concern is that stage acting with dialogue is definitely not his forte. And so a small part with one song becomes unreasonably notable because of who is playing him.

The story of the Titanic is certainly gripping. The singing voices are strong, but that over amplification of the sound—Yikes!

Michael Harrison and Paul Elliott in association with David Mirvish present:

Run: May 19 to June 21, 2015
Cast: 25; 17 men, 8 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 min. approx.

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1 Bruce Blandford June 10, 2015 at 12:25 pm

Thank you, thank you for talking about the amplification. I had seen the show on Broadway and enjoyed it much more here – but – I thought it the worst amplification I have ever heard, even worse than the tour of Book of Mormon at the same theatre. I think it shocking that Mirvish productions do not pay any attention to this ongoing problem and hire sound technicians with ears and capable of delivering at the same high level as the rest of the production.