Signature Theatre’s ‘Titanic’ uses in-the-round setting to great effect

Signature Theatre’s ‘Titanic’ uses in-the-round setting to great effect

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Christopher Mueller)

“Titanic,” now playing at Signature Theatre, is a story of man’s inability to predict the ramifications — and limitations — of state-of-the-art technology.

It is a tale of an ocean liner made of 46,000 tons of steel, measuring 11 stories high and 1,000 feet long, that went down in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912 carrying some of the world’s wealthiest families who were aboard her maiden voyage. That there were young men and women of Irish and English de- scent aboard who were seeking their fortunes in the New World, and others who believed they and the ship were invincible, is an equal part of this historic maritime tragedy.

Referred to as “the ship of dreams” and a “human metropolis,” the Titanic is nowhere to be seen in director Eric Shaeffer’s version of the musical by writer Peter Stone and composer/lyricist Maury Yeston. But that doesn’t keep us from sensing its vast power and scale and immersing ourselves in the drama that played out on the high seas.

Reimagining the Tony Award- winning musical, Schaeffer and set designer Paul Tate dePoo III give us a theater-in-the-round that utilizes five steel gangways that reflect the massive scale of the multi-level luxury liner. This creates a more intimate experience for the audience.

It also allows many of the 38 performers to remain in clear sight and in equal hearing range, producing a magnificent harmonic convergence of vocal heft. We have choreographer Matthew Gardiner to thank for that too, as the players climb the ramps and position themselves at different heights to sing their numbers. It is the most effective use of a theater-in-the-round stage I’ve ever seen.

Particularly haunting is the 17-piece band perched on a separate elevated catwalk in full view of the audience. Led brilliantly by conductor James Moore, their constant presence is reminiscent of how they sacrificed their lives to play for the remaining passengers as the behemoth was devoured by the sea.

The story delves into not just one love story but many — the John Jacob Astors played by Matt Connor and Jamie Eaker and a touching story of romance below decks played by the exceptional Katie McManus as Kate McGowan and Hassani Allen as Jim Farrell.

Other couples are revealed to have secrets — Lady Caroline Neville’s (Iyona Blake) illicit love affair with Charles Clarke (Chris Sizemore) and Alice Beane’s (Tracy Lynn Olivera) disappointment in her husband’s inferior social standing.

Ryan Hickey’s sound design keeps us immersed in the idea of traveling on a ship through the atmospheric use of fog horns, bells and the slamming of the coal stokers’ fiery oven doors. Another effective touch is Frank Labowitz’s turn of the century navy blue gowns, feathered picture hats and simple frocks, and Amanda Zieve’s suspended Edison light bulbs and under-stage blue lights.

But what keeps us in a state of high anxiety is the blame game and what-ifs between the captain (Christopher Bloch), the ship’s owner J. Bruce Ismay (Lawrence Redmond), the ship’s master William Murdoch (Kevin McAllister) and
its architect Thomas Andrews, played spectacularly by Bobby Smith, as they wonder what they could have done differently and who is at fault.

Ultimately, as the ship goes down — and we knew it would — the drama is no less palpable, and we are drawn hook, line and sinker into the tragedy of despair and dashed dreams of the hundreds of lives lost. It’s a visceral experience and Yeston’s heart-stopping score rises up to meet it.