NOT-SO-BON VOYAGE Robinson and the ill-fated craft.
If the anguished story of the sinking of the RMS Titanic didn't exist, we would have had to invent it. In fact, it has been mythically embellished — as the larger-than-life Titanic. The musical is being staged at Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston (through July 14) in a full-throated production that makes up in actorly talent what it understandably lacks in Broadway spectacle.
With story and book by Peter Stone and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, it's being directed by Richard Ericson, with music direction by Lila Kane and choreography by Margaret Hayes.
The 1997 show swept up five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and remained on Broadway for two years. Apparently, audiences didn't object to such exaggerations as the White Star Line maintaining that the ship was unsinkable, that the owner pressured the captain to steam at unsafe speed, or even that she was the largest ship on the seas. (Her sister ship, the Olympia, beat her by three inches.)
The immensity of the Titanic didn't have to be exaggerated, since the "floating city" was nearly the length of three football fields and 11 stories high. When an iceberg sliced her open on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on April 15, 1912, she was carrying 2233 passengers and crew, of whom 1517 perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Since maritime rules allowed sleek design to trump common sense, there were only enough lifeboats to accommodate 1178. (And due to a disorganized evacuation, some 450 of those seats remained empty.)
The musical is a swift, intermission-free 90 minutes, packed with more than two dozen songs and just over a dozen actors playing 35 characters. Since hubris is a recurring theme, the opening song puts that in context, as the ensemble swings into "In Every Age," citing examples of pride made physical, from the pyramids to the Great Wall of China. The human embodiment of that attitude is Bruce Ismay (Chris Gleim), the line's owner, who keeps pressing for more speed and announces more than once that "God himself couldn't sink this ship." For balance, Gleim also plays Fred Barrett, the chief stoker of the boiler rooms, who tries to restrain excessive physical demands on the ship.
Since the Titanic represented the height of maritime technology, many first-class passengers joined the maiden voyage as a mark of prestige. Nevertheless, accompanying third-class passengers on their trip to the bottom of the sea were such prominent members of the privileged class as an owner of Macy's department store and his wife and John Jacob Astor (Joseph Robinson). Representing the contrasting hoi polloi are second-class passengers Edgar Beane (Robinson) and his rubbernecking wife Alice (Poppy Champlin), who excitedly crashes a first-class salon when everyone is called from their cabins.
The songs do a good job of conveying the storytelling and thematic high points, such as the ensemble's "The Largest Moving Object" and "I Must Get On That Ship." "To Be a Captain" and "Lady's Maid" personalize the respective roles and the classes they represent.