Review: Titanic: The Musical

Cast of Titanic: The Musical                                                            Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
July 24, 2019

Lyric Theatre closes its summer sojourn downtown at the Thelma Gaylord with Titanic: The Musical, a title that should cause serious theatergoers to cringe. But not so fast. This musical and how Lyric does it have much going for it.

With music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and story and book by Peter Stone, this 1997 show depicts in a deeply personal way one of the world’s historic disasters. Some of this country’s richest people were on that ship (names Astor, Guggenheim, Widener). But she also carried passengers in third class who aspired to a new life in America. The musical features stories of both.

Nota bene: Other than the subject matter, this show has nothing to do with the 1997 motion picture Titanic. It is not an adaptation of the movie (thank goodness).

The director Michael Baron has marshalled forces for this production that, compared to musicals today, are, well, titanic (from the Greek titanikos of the Titans). A cast of 41 actors fronts a choir of 58 singers and an orchestra of 21 musicians, conducted by Oklahoma City Philharmonic music director Alexander Mickelthwate. The choir and orchestra perform onstage in black tie.

The unhelpful program does not include a cast list or show which characters are performing the songs, although it does have cast biographies. Thus, sometimes it’s hard to know which actors are singing the songs, which is too bad because they all do fine jobs. (The program is in the form of a full-sized newspaper, reproducing the front page of The Daily Oklahoman of April 16, 1912.)

Jeffrey Ambrosini gives a sensitive performance as the ship’s captain on his final voyage. Jason Bias is excellent as First Class Steward Henry Etches, serving champagne up to the end. As J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, who puts speed over safety, Patrick Borror conveys imperiousness and scumbaggery in equal parts. Ian Marcontell gives a strong performance as a boiler room man who worries Ismay’s ambition and the captain’s compliance endanger the ship. The appealing Gavin Guthrie brings youthful energy as the Bellboy. Charlie Monnot plays the ship’s last, best hope in telegrapher Harold Bride.

This show could be done as a grand spectacle, but Baron and his designers opted for a schematic production, which is more like a lightly staged, fully costumed concert version of the musical. This is a prudent choice, because Yeston’s score and Stone’s book are strong on their own.  Jeffrey Meek has designed some eye-popping costumes for Lyric in recent seasons, especially for shows at the Thelma Gaylord. In this production, however, his realistic costumes give the production a credible authenticity. Kimberly Powers’s scenic design consists of nautical-looking steel stairs at left and right and a platform across the back of the stage that becomes the ship’s bridge and other locations. Sound design by Anthony Risi plays a big role in this production where much is left to the imaginations of audience members.

The strength of Titanic: The Musical lies in Yeston’s score. It leans too much toward show music to be called operatic. (But that’s not a knock. Some great music has been written for musical theater.) My favorite part comes at the end of the first act, when the ship hits the iceberg. Yeston builds tension in a haunting triple meter, and, then, just as you expect a grinding, loud impact—silence. The moment is elegant and powerful in its simplicity.

Titanic: The Musical by Maury Yeston (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone (story and book)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, July 24-25, 8:00 p.m. Friday, July 26
2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, July 27, 2:00 p.m. Sunday, July 28
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
Tickets start at $32