Anyone who didn't see "Titanic" when it was on Broadway will never see it now. The touring version, which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, bears about as much resemblance to that production as a Xerox copy does to an oil painting.
Maury Yeston's Tony-winning songs are intact and beautifully sung, and Peter Stone's Tony-winning book is unchanged. What isn't there is Richard Jones's technically complex, astonishing staging: For financial and practical reasons, the three-tiered show with its exquisite shifting boxes of action now takes place on one level in front of uninteresting backdrops.
The actors line up across the stage -- a visual monotony that didn't matter when Jones was playing with three levels -- and sing at the audience. It might almost be a concert version. Without the kinetic staging, you notice how inert -- dull, really -- the first act is. Characters from Musical Comedy Land are introduced: the feisty Irish colleen, the amusing social climber, the young newlyweds, the very proper servant and so on. There are also, of course, Capt. E.J. Smith (William Parry), ship's designer Thomas Andrews (Kevin Gray), ambitious White Star Line official J. Bruce Ismay (Adam Heller) and radio operator Harold Bride (Dale Sandish).
None of them has much to do, though, except pass time till the ship hits the iceberg. The only action is the continual bombardment of the captain with urgings, on the one hand, to go faster (this from Ismay), and on the other, to watch out for icebergs (this from Bride). We already know which advice he paid more attention to.
The smack into the iceberg ends Act 1. Act 2 depicts the eerily slow sinking (total submersion took 2 hours, 40 minutes) and the equally eerie way the passengers only gradually realize that most of them are going to die (only about a third survived, almost none from third class). This is the strongest, strangest, most wrenching part of the story, and even with the abbreviated staging, it retains some of its power.
But how much is missing, compared with Broadway! At the Kennedy Center, the ship's stern gradually tilts as terrified passengers cling to the rails and Andrews sings, with vain regret, about how he might have designed the ship better. It's pretty impressive, though this is the kind of thing a movie does better (and, in fact, the movie did it better).
On Broadway, the tilting deck occupied the upper third of the three-level playing area, and Andrews was alone in his stateroom on the bottom. As the deck tilted, so did the stateroom -- its chairs and small tables falling over one by one as Andrews frantically tried to figure out what he might have done differently.
Finally, as the people above stumbled and fell from sight, the baby grand piano in the stateroom, slowly at first and then inexorably, slid across the stage and bore Andrews off to his despairing death. It was an unforgettable theatrical moment, the kind of thing that demonstrates how an action-packed, physically extreme story can be stunningly rendered onstage, and shows that such stories don't have to be ceded to the movies.
If you didn't see the Broadway "Titanic," you won't find this one bad; you may just wonder what all the fuss in New York was about. Jones has adapted his direction as best he could; unfortunately, since that involved losing two levels, there wasn't a lot he could do. Bits of the original staging show up -- a scene in which some third-class passengers look down a stairwell straight into the audience; the duet between Bride and a stoker (Marcus Chait) in the radio room, a small pale green square floating in black. But in their newly conventional surroundings, these effects look forced and odd.
The singing is superb, and Yeston's score holds up in these reduced circumstances. It's a lovely piece of work, melancholy and subtle. The opening series of songs, in which the passengers approach the voyage with hope and wonder, is a heart-stopper. "Titanic" is, unavoidably, a supremely ironic show. But it's not cynical, and this is mostly owing to Yeston, whose music is an elegy for yearning and optimism, not a sneer at human folly.
The Opera House stage is big, but it's easy to see, even from the audience, that it's not tall enough to have accommodated the full-blown staging of "Titanic." There are probably few, if any, theaters outside New York that could. The cut-down version seems to have been the only alternative if the show was to tour at all. But audience members should understand that they're not going to see the extraordinary production that earned the Tony for "Best Musical."
Titanic, story and book by Peter Stone, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Directed by Richard Jones. Set and costumes, Stewart Laing; lights, Paul Gallo; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; orchestrations, Jonathan Turnick; original choreography, Lynne Taylor-Corbett; additional choreography, Mindy Cooper. With David Pittu, John Leone, Raymond Sage, Edward Conery, Timothy J. Alex, Matthew Yang-King, Ken Triwush, Bruce Thompson, Jennifer Waldman, Kristi Barber, Rebecca Hunter Lowman, S. Marc Jordan, Taina Elg, Rob Donohoe, Joann Spencer, Ken Krugman, Carol Denise, Bob Lauder Jr., Stacie James, Michael Shelle, Laura Kenyon, Margo Skinner, Sarah Solie Shannon, Philip Lehl, Christianne Tisdale, David Beditz, Liz McConahay, Melissa Bell, Dana Lynn Caruso, Jodi Jinks, Kate Suber. At the Kennedy Center through Aug. 21. Call 202-467-4600.
CAPTION: In the musical "Titanic," radio operator Harold Bride (Dale Sandish, above) realizes the ship is doomed, while passengers frolic, unaware of their fate.
CAPTION: William Parry as Capt. E.J. Smith and David Pittu as his first officer aboard a scaled-down "Titanic."