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Musical 'Titanic': a Sinking Feeling

Evocative set design can't keep the production or its script afloat after the iceberg arrives.

March 15, 2001|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Behold "Titanic": Mammoth. Majestic. Doomed.

Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities is launching its 10th anniversary season with a new production of the 1997 Broadway musical about history's most famously ill-fated passenger ship. Budgeted at $750,000 and crafted by some of Los Angeles' top theater talents, it's a luxury liner of a show.

Yet like the great ship herself, "Titanic: The Musical" contains some catastrophic engineering flaws: namely, Peter Stone's book and Maury Yeston's music. Both come across better here than in the stripped-down touring version at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1999. Yet they remain merely workmanlike up to Titanic's collision with the iceberg, then give out entirely when faced with the enormity of what happened in the icy North Atlantic in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

Where the material lacks structure and drama, Thomas Buderwitz's set--which cost $200,000--helps to supply it.

The design makes it appear that Titanic's riveted steel skin is being peeled away, whole or in sections, to reveal its compartmentalized interior. Soaring two and three levels high, the settings codify the ship's rigid class structure, with first-class passengers on upper decks and in large, grandly decorated spaces, while third-class passengers are relegated to the stage floor in smaller, more sparely appointed areas.

Some of the painstakingly detailed sets are used for just a few minutes, never to be seen again. These include a two-story-high, hungry-mouthed boiler as well as a re-creation of the Grand Salon, with its rich, wood-paneled walls and sweeping staircase, capped by a glass dome.

Director Michael Michetti keeps the action flowing logically and smoothly, though his work displays little of the visual ingenuity that characterized last year's "Sweeney Todd" in Thousand Oaks or his recent "Edward II" in Hollywood.

The 37 cast members sound appropriately rich in the many operetta-like choral numbers and, under conductor Steven Landau's baton, the 19-member orchestra pumps a lot of eerie foreboding into the underscoring.

With so many characters crammed into the plot, it's difficult for each performer to make an impression. The exception is Kevin Earley, whose rich, ringing baritone further ennobles his humble stoker.

Act 1 is a study in ambition and its flip side, arrogance, with Titanic--11 stories high, nearly a quarter of a mile long and considered unsinkable--as a symbol of human achievement. In Act 2, humankind pays for that hubris. It's an interesting concept, yet even when lavished with this much money and talent, it proves tragically sinkable.

*

* "Titanic: The Musical," Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., at Aviation Boulevard, Redondo Beach. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends March 25. $35-$50. (310) 372-4477. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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