Treading Water, Valiantly
|(l. to r.) Daryl Robinson, Michael Jeffrey Lucas, Todd Cooper, Jim Graysmith|
|Heidi Swinford, Allen Cruz|
|Andrew Bolden, Sarah Marie Young|
|(l. to r.) Alexis Wilson, Kaelin Curran, Morgan Brown|
|Michael Jeffrey Lewis, Sean Fleming|
By Tom Wachunas
“…And the night was alive/ With a thousand voices /Fighting to be heard /And each and every one of them /Connected to me...”
- lyrics by Maury Yeston from “The Night Was Alive” for Titanic – The Musical
A confession: At this writing, I am overcome with mixed feelings in a sea of sad ironies. Not the least of those is that opening night of the Players Guild production of Titanic – The Musical came so soon (May 17) after the sudden passing on May 9 of 55 year-old Scott Sutton.
Through decades, his work as lighting designer and sound engineer brought magical dimensionality to hundreds of Players Guild productions, including the spectacular artistry of his final project in April, Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s not unreasonable to think that processing the loss of such a vital and beloved member of the Guild family might profoundly affect how the cast members - directed by Jonathan Tisevich – would rise to the challenge of insightfully focusing their hearts and minds on navigating the Titanic narrative (story and book by Peter Stone, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston). And that’s another irony. For here is a story - an operatic voyage, really – about unexpected tragedy, the promise and fragility of human dreams, and mortality itself.
So in one sense, perhaps the emotive core of this show is to be found in the genuinely valiant efforts of the performers to somehow bind the weighty pall of their personal bereavement to the hopes, aspirations, and worldviews of the people they’re portraying. Still, the energy pouring from the stage is a wandering one, feeling oddly sporadic and numbing at times. It’s as if all these characters can do is to dutifully tread the cold water of circumstance.
To be fair, the undermining flaws in this production are, for the most part, not the fault of the clearly gifted cast (though there are some distinctly off-pitch singing passages), but rather in the decidedly flaccid songwriting. While the live orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons plays superbly enough (as it always does), the music as a whole is not particularly remarkable. The melodies themselves are largely impotent, doing little to evoke palpable urgency or suspense, despite some impassioned delivery from accomplished singers. Though too few and far between, the moments when the music is at its most powerful are those featuring choral singing from the full company, magnificent in its sheer aural opulence of thunderous, soaring harmonies.
There are some compelling dramatic scenes here that keep this “ship of dreams” afloat long enough for us to savor intervals of authentic anger, pathos, tenderness, and exhilaration. Daryl Robinson is a quietly riveting picture of brooding obsession as he plays Andrews, the designer of the Titanic who never stops looking at his blueprints. As Captain Smith, Jim Graysmith is a cold figure, stern and aloof in the night atop his bridge, seemingly uncaring about the safety of his passengers. Similarly uncaring, Todd Cooper is sinister hubris and unbridled pride personified in his role of Ismay, Titanic’s owner, insisting that his property set a new trans-Atlantic speed record. In a startling song titled The Blame, the three of them engage in a chaotic flurry of insults and vicious finger-pointing as the ill-fated vessel begins to sink.
On a gentler note, Heidi Swinford is all impish charm in her role of Alice Beane, a second-class passenger humorously swooning over and idolizing the wealthy first-class celebrities on board, all bedecked in flamboyant period costumes designed by Stephen Ostertag (oh! those ridiculous ladies’ hats!). Kaelin Curran, Alexis Wilson, and Morgan Brown are deliciously animated as a giddy trio of young, third-class Irish women, each named Kate, each dreaming of the good life in America. Meanwhile, Sarah Marie Young as Caroline, along with Andrew Bolden as Charles, are thoroughly captivating as they look forward to married life. Their duet, I Give You My Hand, is especially commanding. Another most tender and endearing duet, The Proposal / The Night Was Alive, features Sean Fleming playing a stoker named Barrett, and Michael Jeffrey Lucas as Bride, who works in the ship’s teletype room. As Bride taps out Barrett’s dictated marriage proposal to his distant girlfriend, the two men are joined in a mesmerizing moment of contrapuntal harmony.
The set designed by Joshua Erichsen is a transfixing apparition of steel ramps, scaffolds, railings, and columns superimposed with projected mechanical drawings. It effectively captures the metaphorical spirit and epic scale of the historic vessel, described in the song In Every Age as, “…a human metropolis... A complete civilization! Sleek! And fast! At once a poem and the perfection of physical engineering...”
A complete civilization indeed. Sleek, fast, destined for disaster. Perfection? To a point, yes, as in…perfectly ironic.
Titanic: The Musical / Through June 2, 2019, on the Players Guild Mainstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, Ohio / shows at 8 p.m. on May 24, 25, 30, 31 and June 1 / shows at 2 p.m. on May 26 and June 2 / TICKETS: $32 adult, $29 seniors 65 and older, $25 for 17 and younger / at www.PlayersGuildTheatre.com and 330-453-7617.