NEW YORK — "Titanic" isn't a disaster. But faint praise like that--applied to a new, much anticipated $10-million Broadway musical--isn't only oxymoronic, it's a huge, looming iceberg.
Despite an impressive sinking or at least leaning effect at the 11th hour, the large-scale musical that opened Wednesday night at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre will have to struggle to stay afloat, no question. It tells the incredibly dramatic tale of what happened aboard the Titanic in the late-evening hours of April 14, 1912, on the ship's maiden voyage. The magnificent "floating palace" hit an iceberg and sank. With not enough lifeboats and the inevitable confusion, 1,513 of the 2,224 people on board perished. With separate treatment for the first-, second- and third-class passengers, the rescue process has become a metaphor for the class system of the years before the Great War.
"Titanic," the musical, offers no argument about class, except to pin almost all the blame for what happened on one profiteer from the steamship line. The creator's intents are foggy at best, much more so than in, say, the 1958 Roy Baker Titanic film "A Night to Remember," from Walter Lord's novel. Where Baker could provide close-ups on a large array of characters, "Titanic" director Robert Jones has no such technique by which to move us close to 42 characters and 28 extras, played by 43 actors.
Peter Stone's book should help to differentiate the people and make them grippingly singular, but it doesn't. The three young Irish women crossing to America in steerage are all named Kate, which Stone supplies a joke about. But it's no joke; these immigrants are not only indistinguishable from one another, they are just like any fictive immigrants anywhere who believe that in America "the streets are paved with gold."
Composer-lyricist Maury Yeston has written some pretty and dramatic melodies, but his lyrics also cling to the generic. The opening numbers, eight in all, detail the awe with which people are seized when they gaze upon the glorious ocean liner, a gleaming symbol of modern man's mastery over nature. But the awe sounds repetitive as it passes among a remarkable range of folks, starting with the ship's builder, Thomas Andrews (Michael Cerveris, the original Tommy in "Tommy"), down to the stoker (Brian D'Arcy James), the radio man (Martin Moran) and passengers of all classes.
The first and arguably only character to emerge from this haze of uniformity is a second-class passenger named Alice Beane (Victoria Clark, who played Smitty in "How to Succeed . . . "). In Clark's winning performance, Alice is so excited about seeing the Astors and the Guggenheims, people she reads about in gossip columns, that she can't help but trumpet all the details of their lives to her husband (Bill Buell). Clark's adorable state of excitement provides needed early exposition in an organic way.
Visually, "Titanic" disappoints. One wants to see the opulence of the ship, but designer Stewart Laing mainly eschews realism. A series of minimalist backdrops with portholes represents various parts of the boat. You keep expecting the drops to rise to reveal a huge ship, but that never happens. Laing does, however, supply the various decks in a nifty three-tiered effect that gives the impression of great height. One particularly impressive effect shows a view from the ocean of the third-class characters staring desperately down at the water when they realize they have been locked in.
The villain of the piece is J. Bruce Ismay (David Garrison), an arrogant twit who runs the White Star Line, which owns the ship. He wheedles and provokes the captain (John Cunningham) to get the boat going as fast as it can, and the captain capitulates, taking it up to 22 knots on the more dangerous but shorter northern course. Together they represent the vanity that sank the Titanic, but blame is clearly placed on Ismay, who inspires a hearty hissing at the curtain call. When Cunningham comes out for the star's bow--the last--it's a mark of how much the show has failed that we have no idea who this man is or how much he is to be held accountable.
"Titanic" is a rather heartbreaking illustration of how difficult it is to create a show that truly sings on a Broadway stage. The creators clearly have the desire to reach and to satisfy people who sacrifice $75 for the top ticket. But "Titanic," alas, is a place where incalculable holes are impossible to fix.
* "Titanic," Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., New York, (800) 755-4000.