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REVIEW: Titanic, The Musical - Candlelight Pavilion, Directed by Chuck Ketter

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

"... A story put to music, which never falls short of exemplifying the contrast of hope and despair"

In 1997, a new musical swept the Tony Awards, winning all five categories it was nominated for, including Best Musical and Best Score, and has since become an international staple of musical theatre.

Titanic, The Musical – a stunning and stirring mega-production, directed by Chuck Ketter, is currently presented as Candlelight Pavilion’s latest masterwork, a crowning achievement and a testament to many years of monumental showpiece productions, and is now playing through February 23rd.

As the opening overture introduces this theatrical opus, one could not help feel the same sense of exhilaration that those boarding the Titanic did in 1912. All different classes of passengers, engineers and crew - all with hopes, dreams and ambitions that come with this maiden voyage, tragically destined to be a legacy. Watching the crowd wave farewell to their lovers while boarding the largest passenger liner in the world, created to be a floating cosmopolitan, we come to realize that these characters embody the spirit of the American dream - those longing for individualism, those needing recognition, others who just want a simple life, many looking to progress, or become equal in status, and some simply wanting to make a difference.

And the audience? Utterly enchanted! It is romanticism in its finest form. The costumes are accurate to any images one would have had in their mind, the sets are simple, effective and engaging, and the music is both ethereal and heroic. It is with this dichotomy that the essence of the musical is captured. A story put to music, which never falls short of exemplifying the contrast of hope and despair portrayed throughout the show.

Of course, the story of the liner RMS Titanic has captivated the public ever since that tragic night in 1912 when the ship struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic, taking over 1,500 men, women and children of every class with her. It's a horrifying moment that instantly etched itself into the communal consciousness of Western civilization. Along with an endless parade of books, articles, films and documentaries, several stage musicals have set scenes aboard the Titanic. “Cavalcade,” “Little Me,” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was loosely based on the lives of Titanic survivors. The 1953 movie, “Titanic,” starring Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Wagner might still be the credible source for many baby-boomers. But how do they create a new musical for stage that could effectively and carefully simulate such a catastrophe?

Peter Stone's book was the first key. Using the same approach he had in his 1969 musical, “1776,” Stone sticks to the essential historical facts, making only the changes that were necessary to provide effective dramatic continuity.

Brilliantly establishing the interweaving lives caught up in the story, he focuses the action on a handful of passengers and crew, all of whom actually existed. The result gives a human face to this often anonymous event. In the misfortune-strewn context of history, it means little to say 1,500 died in a sinking. However, it matters tremendously that individuals like Isidor and Ida Straus or Kate Murphy died. In other dramatic versions of the Titanic story, including the smash-hit 1997 movie, we don't get to know so many real-life characters nearly as well as we do in this musical.

By the way, if you are waiting for Jack and Rose to make their entrance for a whirlwind romance of intensity and foggy windows, rest assured that this version takes on a completely different approach - a more charming approach. The story conveys instead the experience of being on the Titanic from different perspectives. It relates to the carefree gaiety of the First Class, the struggles of the working class and the tension between the officers on board, capturing the hearts and minds of all in the progress.

The next key was in Maury Yeston's sweeping score. Known for Nine’s haunting “In a Very Unusual Way,” and Grand Hotel’s irresistible, “Love Can’t Happen,” Yeston invokes the period sounds of 1912, but gives them a fresh sound that is unmistakably from our end of the century. The amazing opening sequence, set entirely to music, introduces us to more than thirty characters, gives us a shipload of Titanic statistics, and does all this with some humor and breathtaking moments of heartfelt emotion.

The chorales, especially "Godspeed Titanic," (featuring Tony Winkel as Herbert J. Pitman) soar with melodic power worthy of composer Edward Elgar, and pepper the score with echoes of Scott Joplin ("Doing the Latest Rag") and elements of Gilbert and Sullivan ("What a Remarkable Age This Is"), bringing a chill to the spell-bound audience. The show stopping love song "Still" sounds very much like Victor Herbert's work, but its melodic construction and poetic lyrics carry Maury Yeston's stylistic signature. Samantha Wynn Greenstone and Jamie Snyder sing the song for all it's worth, electrifying the audience and creating the kind of moment musical theatre lovers live for.

As the musical begins, Titanic's designer, Thomas Andrews (Jeffrey Warden) marvels at the wondrous things mankind has accomplished ("In Every Age"). Stoker Frederick Barrett (Gregg Hammer) also arrives at the dock in Southampton, amazed by the feat of engineering ("How Did They Build Titanic?").

He is joined by lookout Frederick Fleet (Max Herzfeld) and telegraph operator Harold Bride (Gavin Juckette), and they gaze in awe at the ship of dreams ("There She Is") as the crew arrives. The eternally blissful Bellboy (Christian “Pinecone” Peneda) joins ensemble and officers in the rallying “Loading Inventory.”

Elsewhere, J. Bruce Ismay (Greg Nicholas), Mr. Andrews, and Captain E. J. Smith (Marc Montminy) congratulate each other on being the owner, designer, and captain of "The Largest Floating Object in The World.”

As the Third and Second Class passengers appear, many of them emigrants, they suddenly feel privileged to be on the grandest ship ever to sail, and burst out in the uptempo song, "I Must Get on that Ship," led by The Three Kates - Catie Marron, Carolyn Lupin and Jamie Kaufman. The First Class passengers arrive, and their names and achievements are narrated by Second Class passenger Alice Beane (Sarah Meals, "First Class Roster").

As the Titanic sets sail, Ismay manipulates Captain Smith in increasing speed, since “legends cannot be made with prudence.” Barrett, in the boiler room, disagrees with the order on such a new ship, but nonetheless warily complies in "Barrett's Song." In First Class, the titans of industry recount the accomplishments that man has recently achieved, with the Titanic becoming the pinnacle ("What a Remarkable Age This Is!") This is the first moment where I’m sure most audience members begin to cringe – everything is moving so majestically and you almost hope that maybe someone has mercifully changed the ending.

As the voyage continues, Ismay demands increasingly more speed so the ship can build an impressive reputation. Captain Smith complies, despite Andrews' objections and warnings of icebergs in their course. Smith, noticing 1st Officer William Murdoch's qualities, deems him ready to assume a command of his own, but Murdoch (Johnny Fletcher) feels he is not yet ready to handle the responsibilities of the job ("To Be a Captain").

In Second Class, Alice Beane longs for the grandeur that is First Class, while her husband Edgar (Matt Carvin), a successful hardware store owner, is content with their station. Charles Clarke (Matt Bolden), who is traveling to America to become a journalist, is accompanied by his fiancée, Caroline Neville (Amanda Greig). Caroline's father doesn't approve of the engagement, so they are eloping to America. In steerage, the three Irish lasses named Kate once again dreams with the rest of Third Class of the opportunities that await them in America with the expressively moving, "Lady's Maid.”

Meanwhile, Kate McGowan is smitten with a young man traveling with them, Jim Farrell (Zach Fogel, who is also featured in Act II’s “The Staircase” with Barrett and The Three Kates). Micah Tangermann plays the part of Charles Lightoller.

In the wireless room, Bride is overwhelmed by passengers’ personal messages to be sent, though he finds time to handle Barrett's proposal to his girlfriend ("The Proposal/The Night Was Alive").

On Sunday morning, life goes on as usual on the ship. First Class attends religious services ("God Lift Me Up"), then dances on deck to "Doing The Latest Rag." Alice Beane has managed to infiltrate their ranks, and Edgar finds her and the two argue over their lifestyle choices ("I Have Danced"). As evening draws near, the temperature drops, and lookout Fleet finds the weather conditions difficult for spotting icebergs ("No Moon").

On deck, Kate McGowan tells Farrell that she needs to marry as she is carrying the child of a married man, and he accepts. Later, as elderly passengers Isidor and Ida Straus discuss their plans for the years to come, Fleet suddenly spots an iceberg dead ahead and alerts the bridge. Murdoch, who's the senior officer on the bridge, takes evasive action, but the Titanic strikes the iceberg and tears a massive hole in the hull.

As the second act begins - every bit as engaging and every bit as emotional, Director Ketter manages to capture the intensity of separation, survival, and regrets of the ship’s engineering in such a way that you can’t help but be awe-struck that the rudimentary elements of ship-building were not double-checked in advance to avoid such a tragedy. From the emboldened owner and builder who believed their ship was "unsinkable" to the emigrants in Steerage searching for a better life in America, both the epic and everyday stories of the passengers on the legendary RMS Titanic are played out in this gorgeous and beloved musical.

As complicated as the methodology for all this must be, the overall look of Titanic is sleek and simple. Rather than try to re-create a 1912 ocean liner onstage, Chuck Ketter (also the Set Designer) gives vivid impressions: a stretch of wooden deck, the shadow of a chandelier, a couple of smoking chairs, or a bit of railing, along with an ingenious concept that allows the audience to follow the action on several decks at once. They even take us to the top deck for the chilling moment when the ship has its fatal encounter with that iceberg.

The sinking sequence late in Act II is a triumph of imagination, but it is also a horrifying, painfully human theatrical moment. In limited environments, such as Candlelight’s dining area, Director Ketter uses symbolic measures of a ship about to sink to create a powerful effect on the audience. Notably, the lack of a ship physically sinking does not upstage the human drama one bit - a refreshing change, in fact. Because, the mind is the ultimate theatre, from which any scene can be fulfilled.

Musical Director/Conductor Andrew Orbison’s stunning, chorally inspired music, performed by a six-piece orchestra, filled Candlelight fit to burst with Yeston’s richly melodic score, while Dylan Pass strategically choreographed the show’s numbers with perfect timing and finesse. Jonathan Daroca, of 4Wall Entertainment, designed the lighting, and Costumes are coordinated by Mark Gamez, Merrill Grady and Linda Vick, and provided by Costume World Theatrical. Wigs are designed by Michon Gruber-Gonzales.

It’s an evening both shattering and gorgeous! The talent on stage at the Candlelight Pavilion is a reminder why the directors, casting agents and crew are considered the best in the business. This is a phenomenal cast of solid musical theatre pros who make every moment in this show count. The sight of them all lined up in the opening scene, and again, so poignantly in the finale, singing “Sail on, sail on great ship, Titanic...Cross the open sea, pray the journey's sound, till your port be found, fortune's winds sing Godspeed to thee...” will live on in my memory. Sail on indeed, great ship!

Titanic, The Musical opened January 11th at Ben D. Bollinger’s Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont and runs through February 23rd. This show is Highly Recommended! Tickets are available by calling (909) 626-1254, ext. 1. Regular ticket prices range from $63-$78 which includes both dinner and show. The Pavilion is a 299 seat house offering fine dining and musical theater. From cozy round tables for two up front to larger tables of eight, comfortable booths, and even private balcony rooms, the Candlelight Pavilion is an elegant place to spend any evening. The flavorful cuisine sets a dinner theater standard of its own. You may also visit us online for reservations and tickets at Save as much as 15% when you book 4 or more shows as a Season Ticket Holder.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer


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