Theatre Macon's 'Titanic' is stellar ensemble production
By R. Andrew Strickland
(Originally published in the Macon Telegraph, July 11, 2006.)
Our society often marks its passage through time with disasters. People may not remember what they did for an entire year, but they always have a clear picture of where they were when some catastrophic event took place. These events collectively link us to history in a visceral way that happy moments never seem to reach.
In 1912, the event was the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. The tragic human stories behind the loss of the massive luxury liner resonated so strongly that 73 years later the discovery of the wreckage led to the spontaneous creation of television documentaries, video games, a major film and a Broadway musical.
The musical, with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and book by Peter Stone, stays true to the actual story of the great disaster. No contrived story about young love was necessary; the real human drama was enough. Yeston and Stone created a musical in which a long lost ship was the star, with her passengers and crew as the supporting cast. This fact is demonstrated powerfully in a new production at Theatre Macon.
The term ensemble is much loved in theater. It refers to a cast that creates such powerful work together that they tell a story seamlessly without the need of a starring role. The large Theatre Macon cast is brilliant at this, many playing multiple roles to bring the floating city to life. It is a testament to their work, and that of director Jim Crisp, that a star does not emerge. The performances are uniformly excellent and the storytelling compelling. To list one cast member and not all would be an insult to the incredible nature of this work.
The show is known for its difficult music, more choral and densely layered than most standard Broadway fare. Here the cast, under the excellent leadership of musical director Cam Bishop, is in top form. The music is performed with a grandeur and power that is appropriate to the legend of the great ship. The only difficulty was the clarity of some of the lyrics. "Titanic" tells much of its story through musical conversations, and the words come fast and furiously. These passages, while beautiful to hear, could have been given more meaning with improved articulation.
Depicting the 11-story-high Titanic on Theatre Macon's relatively small stage is a tall order. The production uses two elevated areas to represent the ship's bridge and crow's nest. Other locales are created simply with the addition of portholes or panels to depict the various decks. The design is effective, allowing the cast to tell the story seamlessly. The sinking of the ship, famously performed on Broadway in an expensive hydraulic set unit, is staged abstractly here relying on a strong physical performance by performers instead of machinery. It is just as effective.
The costumes by Shelley Kuhen are incredible. The various levels of dress, from the elegance of the first-class passengers to the uniforms of the crew, are presented in flawless detail. Tony Pearson's lighting is strong and evocative. His use of footlights, largely forgotten in modern theater, is quite successful in creating areas of the ship that the set does not.
The sound, always a concern in musicals, is generally well-handled.Balancing a wonderful live orchestra with many singers and multiple microphones is quite a juggling act. Of slight concern was the reliance that some of the cast had on their microphones. Some solo work was soft, as if the singers either feared being overamplified or counted on the microphone to bring out nuances in their performances. These instances, however, were few and far between and did not detract from the strength of the show.
Jim Crisp deserves high praise for his work on this production. The show is effectively staged, using the resources of a small space to great advantage. Crisp's greatest success is in the nature of his cast's performance. The unity of every actor in telling this powerful story speaks volumes of the efforts of its director.
Perhaps the biggest success of Theatre Macon's "Titanic" is its power to connect the audience with a moment in history. Audience members are made to feel as if they were actually there that night in 1912. This is high praise for a well-deserving production.