Theatre review: Titanic, A New Musical will be king of the summer

Where does the Artistic Managing Director of one of Vancouver’s largest theatre companies go after it shutters its doors? If you’re Max Reimer you move into Stanley Park and direct a production of Titanic, A New Musical that is sure to be a summer winner as big as the legend.

With the 100 year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic still fresh, it was perhaps inevitable that a local theatre company would mount a production of this Tony Award winning musical.  That it was the venerable Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) that decided to tackle this epic tale as part of its 66th season came as a bit of a surprise, but under both Reimer’s stage direction and Kevin Michael Cripps musical direction, this show is unsinkable.

Before you begin conjuring images of DiCaprio and Winslet on the bow of a ship though, you should know that writer Peter Stone does try to steer clear of that other obstacle as big as an iceberg, the James Cameron film.  Of course, the basic story must remain the same (spoiler alert: the ship sinks in the end) and we get glimpses into the lives of the various passengers, but Stone effectively chooses to tell his story as more of a collective experience than one of individuals and it is in the phenomenal sound that this cast creates together that makes this production so successful.

But while this production is at its best when this large cast comes together accompanied by Maury Yeston’s amazing score, there are also some individual performances that still float to the top.

Recent Capilano University Musical Theatre grad Sayer Roberts leads the way as ship stoker Frederick Barrett with a voice that is destined for great things.  Roberts nails each of his songs and single-handedly saves “”We’ll Meet Tomorrow”, one of the more emotionally charged songs of the show.  Part of a trio of Roberts’ family members, father Russell makes for a believable Captain Smith and sibling Gower brings a wonderful innocence to his role as a bellboy.

Stefanie Swinnard brings some much needed levity to all gravitas as social climber Alice Beane and even though David Adams and Deborah Allman as Isidor and Ida Straus do not have the best voices of the night, they are so passionately connected that it is so easy to forgive.  Alex McMorran and Steven Greenfield give solid performances as the equally delusional Bruce Ismay and Thomas Andrews and Seth Little turns on his trademark quirkiness as steward Henry Etches.

Not everything in Peter Stone’s story works though.  Alexander Nicoll works hard in the role of wireless telegrapher Harold Bride, but can’t rise above what is an annoying caricature of a turn-of-the-century geek.

Members of the cast of the Theatre Under the Stars production of Titanic, A New Musical.
Members of the cast of the Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) production of Titanic, A New Musical.  Photo courtesy of TUTS.

Doing double-duty as choreographer, Reimer does little of significance in the choreography department with the otherwise beautiful “Lady’s Maid” an example of a huge wasted opportunity.  Despite the “park and bark” nature of his staging though, Reimer does manage to create some stunning visuals.  When you consider James Cameron spent an estimated $200 million to sink his Titanic and the Broadway version of this musical spent millions to do the same, it is a testament to Reimer’s skill and that of his set designer Lauchlin Johnston that they can will sink their own Titanic every night at Malkin Bowl from what must be a comparatively miniscule TUTS budget.

Lauchlin Johnston provides some wonderful video and image projections helping us navigate through the massive ship settings while costume designer Chris Sinosich dresses the cast in a wonderful array of costumes across all the classes.  Alex Livland appears to have fixed one problem that has dogged TUTS over the years, providing a uniformly crisp and clear sound from beginning to end.

The real hero of the night though is musical director Kevin Michael Cripps.  Cripps manages to pull some amazing vocal performances from this cast and does justice to Yeston’s compelling score with his fine orchestra.

One of the best TUTS shows I have seen in years, this Titanic may never be king of the world but it most certainly deserves to be king of the summer.

4 1/2 of 5 Stars Titanic, A New Musical

Story and book by Peter Stone.  Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston.  Directed by Max Reimer.  Musical direction by Kevin Michael Cripps.  A Theatre Under the Stars production.  On stage at Stanley Park’s Malkin Bolw through August 18, 2012.  Visit http://www.tuts.ca for tickets and information.

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