Titanic the Musical

Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, book by Peter Stone
Danielle Tarento, Steven M Levy and Vaughan Williams for Capital Musicals Ltd in association with Mayflower Theatre, Southampton
Alhambra Theatre, Bradford

The cast of Titanic the Musical Credit: Scott Rylander
Niall Sheehy (Frederick Barrett) Credit: Scott Rylander

When Titanic the Musical first sailed onto Broadway in 1997, many critics expected a theatrical turkey of epic proportions. How on earth could anyone make a musical about a nautical disaster where over 1,500 people lost their lives?

Amazingly, the production proved the naysayers wrong, earning glowing reviews and a clutch of Tonys, including the coveted prize for Best Musical. Unfortunately overshadowed by James Cameron’s cinematic juggernaut, which opened in cinemas later that same year, the show has since become a beloved part of the musical repertory. Over the last twenty years, fresh productions of Titanic the Musical have been staged all over the world.

This production, directed by Thom Southerland, was first performed at Southwark Playhouse in 2013, and it arrives in Bradford towards the end of its first UK tour.

Composer Maury Yeston claims that he was drawn to the tragic tale of the Titanic because it captures man’s desire to scale new heights by accomplishing ever greater feats. This theme becomes clear in the opening number, “In Every Age”, where businessman J Bruce Ismay (Simon Green) sings about the Great Wall of China and the Pyraminds.

Yeston was also drawn to the story because he was moved by the stories of the men and women who sailed onboard the Titanic. Despite the intractable social divisions of Edwardian Britain, most of the characters in this musical entertain dreams of escape and self-betterment. Kate McGowan (Victoria Serra), a third-class passenger from Ireland, longs to become a lady’s maid in America, while second-class passenger Alice Beane (Jacinta Whyte) fantasises about joining the upper crust. Even the first-class passengers aspire to greater wealth by taking advantages of the latest strides in technology.

Over the course of Titanic the Muiscal, we are introduced to a wide range of passengers and crew members—from lowly stoker Frederick Barrett (Niall Sheehy) in the bowels of the ship all the way to Captain Edward Smith (Philip Rham)—and we watch them grapple with the appalling disaster that befalls them on 15 April 1912.

Like the New York critics who expected a flop when it was first performed, I could not get my head around the idea of a musical based on the Titanic. Surely it would be preposterous, a work of appalling bad taste? How wrong I was! Titanic the Musical is a stunning achievement.

Thom Southerland’s direction is superb. He orchestrates innumerable scene changes with great fluidity and the whole production has a dynamic, purposeful quality. He finds inventive ways of staging the disaster once it occurs, and in this he is helped considerably by Andrew Johnson’s striking sound design.

Designer David Woodhead’s two-tiered set design, with its rigging and steel panels, powerfully evokes the grandeur of the Titanic and provides a versatile performance space for the performers. Howard Hudson’s gorgeous lighting skilfully differentiates the various locations on the Titanic, from the oppressive furnace of the engine room to the heavenly sophistication of the first-class dining room.

The cast are excellent across the board, but I’d like to mention a few of my favourite performances. Victoria Serra movingly captures Kate McGowan’s optimism, particularly during the wonderful song “Lady’s Maid” (probably my favourite number of the evening) and Jacinta Whyte is a scream as Alice Bean, the ship’s most ambitious social climber. I also enjoyed Oliver Marshall’s soulful turn as the ship’s socially awkward telegraph operator.

With the exception of “Lady’s Maid”, I wouldn’t describe any of the songs in Titanic the Musical as particularly catchy, but that clearly wasn’t Yeston’s intention. Instead, his score bears the influence of British composers such as Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and his sophisticated orchestrations are performed by a talented sextet of musicians, led by Mark Aspinall, whose lush playing belies their small number.

Titanic the Musical joins the ever-swelling group of excellent musicals that I’ve had the pleasure to watch in 2018.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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