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An Overhaul That's Worthy of the Original

Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities splurges on 'Titanic,' giving set designer Thomas Buderwitz the run of the ship.

March 11, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Who's the star of "Titanic," the stage musical? Here's a big hint: The title says it all.

The ship itself is the leading character, more than any human role. The star is the set, more than any particular actor.

So when the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities production of "Titanic" opened Saturday at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center on a budget of $750,000--nearly double the cost of any previous South Bay show--all eyes were on the creation by set designer Thomas Buderwitz.

Buderwitz, 40, had never worked for a civic light opera company, nor had he even seen South Bay's Redondo Beach venue when he accepted the challenge of creating the latest "Titanic." The assignment, Buderwitz said, "goes against what you're taught as a designer--to service the play in an almost unnoticeable way." In "Titanic," with a cast of 37, many characters are only briefly developed. Buderwitz acknowledged a common criticism of the show: "People say the book is weak because it covers so much ground that it doesn't really get you hooked on the people." The set, however, unifies the show's multitudes and becomes "its own character. The show is about the spectacle, to a point."

But how can any stage compete with the James Cameron movie in terms of spectacle?

"It would be totally against our nature to even try," Buderwitz said. Theater relies on suspension of disbelief much more than the movies do. "The smallest impression will work with suspension of disbelief."

Buderwitz, however, is not settling for "the smallest impression." His set cost $200,000. South Bay decided to go all out on "Titanic" as the best way to celebrate its 10th anniversary, said the group's executive director-producer, James Blackman, who confessed to a personal fascination with the Titanic since he was in the fourth grade. "For one show, we're going to pretend we're Cameron Mackintosh or Gordon Davidson. For three weeks, we're Broadway."

Then again, South Bay hopes to recoup part of the cost, or even make a profit, by renting the set, costumes and props to other "Titanic" productions in coming years, for between $12,000 and $15,000 a week.

Buderwitz saw the Broadway production of "Titanic" but did not see the much criticized and stripped-down touring version, which played the Ahmanson Theatre in 1999. Comparing his own work with the set he saw, "I'm trying to be truer to the real ship," he said. "Some of the Broadway design was very sparse. I don't think it reflected the importance of the class structure well enough. The show is about how the classes were treated differently."

Buderwitz contends, for example, that the real ship's bulkheads were too low to be safe, because the ship's designers "carved out bigger spaces for the first-class rooms. I want the design to reflect the fact that great amounts of money were spent on a small percentage of the passengers." So the first-class sections are more ornamented and opulent than in the Broadway version, he said.

Michael Michetti, who is directing the South Bay show, added that the Broadway production arrived before the movie was released. "But now, everyone who sees this will know what the Grand Salon is supposed to look like. There is an expectation that is different from when the Broadway production was created."

A major supporting player--the iceberg--was represented only by a miniature model on Broadway. "We thought it was important to bring the iceberg in," Buderwitz said. "So a painted version in black light rises and looks like it's approaching."

The opening and closing scenes are also designed differently here. In the opening scene, the audience not only watches passengers boarding the ship, but a small fraction of the side of the ship arrives on stage. In the final scene, a scrim is used to separate the survivors from the dead, unlike the earlier version in which they mingled--an effect that Buderwitz thought was "too stagy and gimmicky."

Nonetheless, though Buderwitz's set may be "more realistic and elaborate" than Broadway's, anyone who wants to see the actual ocean should go a few miles west.

"People ask me, 'How are you doing the water?' But this is not the Las Vegas version of the Titanic [in the casino show "Jubilee"], where they pump hundreds of gallons of water. This is suspension of disbelief."

*

Growing up in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., Buderwitz was a kid "who liked to build things--and destroy them," he said. "I liked to draw, but I didn't think of it as art. I still think of it as a craft, until all the elements come together on the stage and create magic--which doesn't happen in every show."

Buderwitz was lured to that kind of magic on frequent trips to New York to see matinees, as well as by watching a sister who acted in summer stock. He designed his first show, a student revival of "Very Good Eddie," when he was a senior in high school. It included scenes on a ship.

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