Chicago Theater Review: TITANIC (Griffin Theatre Company at Theater Wit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 27, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

PRIDE COMETH BEFORE AN ICEBERG

Griffin Theatre Company’s total triumph is a strange success. It’s odd that a more intimate version of a musical called Titanic can so succeed. The cast is reduced from 45 to 20, and Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, updated by Ian Weinberger, are closer to the actual ship’s itinerant band.

The company of Griffin Theatre Company’s production of TITANIC. Photo by Michael Brosilow.Not for a moment to be compared to James Cameron’s pile-driving film version of 1997, this musical by Maury Weston (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone (book) is in fact more faithful to the diversity of the disaster (the Tony-winning musical opened eight months before the blockbuster movie). The 20 characters span all decks, classes and fates–from first class to steerage, from the quarter deck to the engine room, from the auspicious launching of a maiden voyage to the appalling foundering of the largest moving object on the planet circa 1912. Its two-hour transformation from regal to wrecked is still astounding: What, wondered poet Thomas Hardy, did the fish make of this “vaingloriousness” plummeting through their depths?

Matt Edmonds and Laura McClain in Griffin Theatre Company’s production of TITANIC. Photo by Michael Brosilow.Stoking this musical is its captivating love/hate relationship with the doomed White Star Liner. The opening numbers “In Every Age” and “How Did They Build ‘Titanic’?” burst with the hubris of an 11-story ship that “even God couldn’t sink,” a “floating city” that turned the usually grueling transatlantic crossing into a fabulous party at 22 knots per hour. At the same time Titanic mirrors the worst of Britain–class distinctions, imperious snobbery, the toilers in the boilers, the expendability of third-class passengers denied lifeboats, and the arrogant stupidity of sailing too quickly, heedless of ice fields and minus binoculars. An instant catastrophe immediately delineates heroism and cowardice in doomed wireless operators, stalwart stevedores and sailors, teenage bellboys, and Bruce Ismay (Scott Allen Luke), the infamous White Star magnate who learns that speed kills and who has the temerity to survive his own fiasco.

Josh Kohane and the company of Griffin Theatre Company’s production of TITANIC. Photo by Michael Brosilow.Very much a communal work, this swift-moving Titanic surges with ensemble anthems like the ironic “I Must Get On That Ship,” the sickeningly serene ballad “No Moon,” the ragtime romp “Doing the Latest Rag,” and the chaotic counterpoint of “To the Lifeboats.” Balancing these group efforts are cunningly glimpsed, running portraits of passengers and crew—a haughty waiter who’s not without a heart, a second-class misalliance of a marriage, the faithful-to-the-end devotion of Ida and Isador Strauss, a stoker’s paean to power, a celebrity-obsessed gate crasher. Elizabeth Doran’s musical direction taps the talents of a gifted cast, especially Justin Adair’s glorious tenor.

Scott Weinstein’s first-class casting is rewarded with spot-on and spirited performances—Peter Vamvakas’ painfully humbled captain, Joshua Bartlett’s brave telegrapher, Patrick Byrnes’ anguished Murdoch, Sean Thomas and Emily Grayson, old lovers who choose union in death over separation by sea.

Kevin Stangler, Josh Kohane and Justin Adair in Griffin Theatre Company’s production of TITANIC. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Joe Schermoly’s supple set offers enough illusion to suggest the rest. Rachel Sypniewski’s accurate and sumptuous costumes, so many and so swift that the cast seems doubled, tell their own tales in rapid succession. (One technical mistake: The portholes in “Titanic” were rectangular, not oval.)

Eric Lindahl, Scott Allen Luke, Royen Kent and Peter Vamvakas in Griffin Theatre Company’s production of TITANIC. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

It’s tempting to give in to gallows humor, to say Titanic rises to its occasion or descends into darkness. Better to let it just sail into history, with 1,517 fewer people alive than when it left Liverpool. At Theater Wit, much like the Iroquois Theatre victims in Burning Bluebeard, these thwarted travelers get their due.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Titanic
Griffin Theatre Company
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Thurs – Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
scheduled to end on December 7, 2014
for tickets, call (773) 975-8150 or visit www.theaterwit.org
for more info, visit www.griffintheatre.com

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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